Magnetic Zaps to the Brain Can Alter People’s Moral Judgments

By Smriti Rao | March 30, 2010 4:47 pm

brain-200Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but morality, apparently, lies just behind your right ear–in an area scientists call the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ).

In a study that helps explain the mechanics of morality, neuroscientist Liane Young and her colleagues found that activity in the RTPJ is linked to the types of moral judgments we make–and those judgments can easily be tinkered with using a mere magnet. The researchers found that by delivering magnetic pulses to the RTPJ they were able to impact moral judgments; the magnetic pulses made people less likely to condemn others for attempting but failing to inflict harm [Nature]. The findings were published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Says Young: “You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing” [BBC].

Most of us make moral judgments based on not just what the consequences of an action were, but also on what the person’s intentions were. So little children and people with mental illness aren’t judged as harshly for their actions, because their intentions usually aren’t bad. It’s not just a matter of what they did, but how much they understood what they were doing [Nature].

The process of figuring out how much blame to attribute to a person involves the RTPJ. So for this study, scientists used a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to deliver small magnetic pulses to the RTPJ; the pulses temporarily stop brain cells from working normally. Then the researchers asked their subjects questions based on different scenarios while monitoring brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In one test, participants were asked how acceptable it was for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knew as unsafe. After receiving a 500 millisecond magnetic pulse to the scalp, the volunteers delivered verdicts based on outcome rather than moral principle [BBC]. If she safely made it across the bridge, the subjects said, the boyfriend didn’t do anything wrong.

In the second test, researchers delivered shorter magnetic pulses and found that the subjects continued to make moral judgments based on outcome and not intention. This type of thinking is reminiscent of how little children often make moral judgments–thinking, for example, that a kid who broke 5 teacups accidentally is naughtier than the kid who broke one teacup on purpose. Researchers say that children under the age of 5 haven’t yet developed a full understanding of intentions.

Some experts say the study helps dispel the notion that morality is a lofty, intangible thing, and argue that it has been hardwired into our brains by evolution. Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University explained: “Moral judgment is just a brain process…. That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.” If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul [NPR].

Related Content:
80beats: Moral Disgust May Have Evolved From the Response to Rotten Food
80beats: Even “Impartial” Jurors Use Emotion and Self-Bias in Decisions
DISCOVER: Is Morality Innate and Universal?
DISCOVER: Whose Life Would You Save?

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Yar

    Awesome stuff

  • Roy

    Cool! Immediate uses could be for people with unsavory but necessary jobs; I’m thinking the solicitation of organ/cadaver donors or abortion clinics?

  • Torres

    What bugs me out is that many of us routinely hold up a magnet to our right ear through the speakers found in our phones and buds.

  • Michael

    Surely a Harvard psychologist could offer something better than the ridiculously simplistic quote attributed to Joshua Greene. Just as philosophers in previous times obsessively sought to connect the soul with a particular organ of the body, some scientists today appear obsessed with explaining human behavior in purely neurophysiological terms, as if mapping the brain to specific behaviors will somehow inevitably lead to explanations/controls for all behaviors. Ability to successfully conduct and document an experiment intended to evaluate the influence of a physical variable, in this case a magnetic field, upon human behavior does not remark upon anything besides the skill of those performing the experiment and those data obtained which, it is hoped, would not invalidate the original hypothesis; it does not validate any extension of the hypothesis beyond the scope of the original experiment. Hastening death by removing a vital organ does not identify the removed organ with the “existence” of a soul. Altering behaviors by applying a magnetic field to a region of the brain does not identify that region as the “source” of morality.

  • Doug Watts

    Well, this requires a law barring the use of magnetic pulses to this part of peoples’ brains.

    And Joshua Greene is an ass. I severely doubt he is using himself or his children for these experiments.

  • Rob John

    These magnetic pulses did not change a persons moral beliefs or thinking. These pulses temporarily interferred with the normal process. This is akin to taping a persons eyes closed and saying you have changed how they see or percieve the world.

  • marjan

    this is hot

  • paul

    we’ve often described our Sleep on Command™ pulsed magnetic sleep-machine at having the distinct ability to disengage active thought process to promote deeper sleep during periods of “trying” to achieve and maintain sleep.

    there are two studies similarly using a figure 8 coil at 1 Hz such as the one used here and one using electric stimulation at 1 Hz.
    full text of MIT study ->
    the 1 Hz studies showing sleep enhancing effect ->

  • Tierra

    “To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing” – not really. You deliver a magnetic pulse to the brain that temporarily stops brain cells from working normally and of course there will be consequences. Findings like these give scientists (e.g., Joshua Greene) the illusion of nature over nurtue, while others counter with nurture over nature. But isn’t it clear that (human) nature needs to be nurtured?


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