Magnetic Morality

Moral judgments can be altered….by magnets“, says the title of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology article by Anne Trafton. It sounds like science fiction, and rest assured, my friends have helpfully made all the Magneto jokes prior to this article, for your convenience. That said, when discussing the article with my husband, he pointed out that an episode of the television show “The Mentalist” had already talked about this kind of thing. I don’t watch “The Mentalist” because I already watch the original show about a fake psychic solving crimes called “Psych” on the USA Network. (And before you ask, yes, I may have decided to write this article just to get a dig in on “The Mentalist”.) However, in the name of research, I did watch “The Mentalist” episode in question “Red Brick and Ivy”. It was okay, but the reality is far more interesting than the fiction. Particularly since in the episode it was fake.

Images courtesy Rebecca Saxe laboratory, MIT

According to the article “Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.

‘The study offers ‘striking evidence’ that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments,’ says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. ‘It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments’, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.”

The experiments that MIT conducted “used a noninvasive technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to selectively interfere with brain activity in the right TPJ. A magnetic field applied to a small area of the skull creates weak electric currents that impede nearby brain cells’ ability to fire normally, but the effect is only temporary.”

Before you get concerned, it’s not as if MIT is creating alternate universe evil opposites of people. “The researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible.”

For example, “subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely. In such cases, a judgment based solely on the outcome would hold the perpetrator morally blameless, even though it appears he intended to do harm.”

I think, like most people, we assume a sense of morality is instilled in us at a young age. That it’s influenced by family, friends, faith, etc. The idea that a certain amount of our morality is an electrical process in the brain means taking a step back and examining the human animal again. As Liane Young, lead author of the paper says, “You think of morality as being a really high-level behaviour. To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.” You can say that again! For starters, I thought “The Mentalist” thoroughly debunked the idea. If you can’t trust the second generation of fake psychics solving crime, who can you trust? (Yes, I am on team “Psych“, sue me.)

So, what’s the point in me bringing this to my readers attention? Honestly, I don’t have any grand message, or philosophical epiphany to share. It’s just a thing. A thing to reflect on. Our morality, our gauge of right and wrong, is a thing that I think most of us pride ourselves in, that we define ourselves partially from it. This forces us to rethink our own thoughts, and I feel like that is a good thing.

One of the people who commented on the article, wade s, says “I wonder how this compares to cell phone usage, and if prolonged exposure would cause any permanent change.” In a future where average citizens lose the common sense of morality and gradually become evil due to prolonged cell phone usage…..that would be great television! I bet the BBC is already working on it.