The Accelerating Excellence In Translational Science (AXIS)Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science

Dr Jessica Escobedo

By studying the human brain, researchers attempt to address some of the most intriguing scientific questions. How do we perceive the world around us? How do we recall important memories? Is there a genetic basis to personality? How do we decide between right and wrong?

Dr. Jessica Escobedo, a senior research associate at Charles Drew University, is drawn to questions about the how the brain generates our moral behaviors. “Research in neurobiology is at that fascinating point where all we really know are little tidbits; hints of how the brain really works,” Dr. Escobedo said. “There is so much to learn.”

In a recent study , co-authored with Dr. Ralph Adolphs at Caltech, Dr. Escobedo focused on characterizing autobiographical memories of personal moral events. She asked a sample of 100 healthy Californian adults to recall situations when they had to make a moral decision. The stories that the volunteers gave were transcribed and entered into a large, searchable database. Participants then rated the moral memories based on what the event described and how the event made them feel. Dr. Escobedo found that people unintentionally reported positive events that occurred more recently than negative events.

This result suggests that we write and rewrite our own autobiography. It is easier to talk about the lies we told as young children or teenagers than a lie we told last week. Dr. Escobedo thinks that we tend to distance ourselves from our mistakes, constructing a present self that is wiser and better than our past selves. Her research and that of others is concluding that memory is not a clear picture of the past, but a story that might change with the telling.

Learning how people think about past moral decisions helps to illuminate how our brain deals with moral dilemmas. “I’m interested in thinking about how we create our narratives,” Dr. Escobedo said, “and understanding moral decision making in a natural context.”

Dr. Escobedo has explored many branches of science including microbiology, electrophysiology, and neurobiology. Her training gives her a unique perspective into the field of moral neuroscience, driving her to look for the biological basis in our thoughts. “Many studies involve posing moral dilemmas as a scenario, one sentence to a couple of paragraphs, and giving the participant a choice,” she explains. A classic example gives participants a choice of diverting a train and killing one person or five. “The scenarios feel very fabricated, like you are in a testing environment and there is a clear right answer. Life isn’t like that. We always feel there are many options and the right decision is not always an easy choice to make.”

Though is still involved in research, Dr. Escobedo is looking to move her career towards policy making. “I am drawn to policy because I’m interested in the public perception of scientific research,” she said. “There is often a lag between health research and the public’s perception, especially in health disparities research. By addressing why this is, we can change that.”