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Violence and compassion: a bioethical insight into their cognitive bases and social manifestations


  • Roberto E. Mercadillo is at the Institute of Neurobiology, National Autonomous University of Mexico, National School of Anthropology and History. His main research interests are the evolution of cooperative behaviour in primate phylogenetics, the neurobiological bases of social cognition and the processes of empathy and compassion. Recent publications include R.E. Mercadillo, J.L. Díaz and F.A. Barrios, 2007, Definition of compassionate-evoking images in a Mexican sample in Perceptual and motor skills, 105, 661–676 and R.E. Mercadillo, J.L. Díaz and F.A. Barrios 2007, Neurobiología de las emociones morales in Salud Mental (Neurobiology of moral emotions in Mental Health, 30 (3), 1–11.

  • Nallely A. Arias is at the Faculty of Psychology, National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her main research interest is the neuro-psychological and electrophysiological characterisation of individuals prone to impulsive and premeditated violent behaviour.


This article considers the social problem of violence and the alternative of resolution through cooperation and compassion from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience. Violence is a social problem, the manifestations of which have a biological basis reflected in the development of aggression and the neural mechanisms that regulate it. Cooperation and compassion are two forms of behaviour with similar developmental, cognitive and cerebral regulatory bases to the mechanisms activated in violence, even though they result in radically different forms of behaviour. The article examines violence and compassion as two mechanisms that lead to moral action that depends on whether sociocultural contexts are adverse or favourable to human well-being. It concludes that the neuro-cognitive system is a flexible and adaptable mechanism that regulates behaviour directly, according to the sociocultural context in which individuals live. Against that background, the UNESCO Declarations on the culture of peace refer to concepts relating to cognition or the human mind. Cognitive neuroscience therefore provides tools for creating and changing mental concepts that could eventually enable human beings to live together in peace.