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Biotech Science

Magnetism Can Sway Man's Moral Compass 586

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the so-can-hot-chicks dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Discovery News reports that scientists have identified a region of the brain which appears to control morality and discovered that a powerful magnetic field can scramble the moral center of the brain, impairing volunteers' notion of right and wrong. 'You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,' says Liane Young, a scientist at MIT and co-author of the article. 'To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgments is really astonishing.' Young and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to locate an area of the brain just above and behind the right ear known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ), which other studies had previously related to moral judgments. Volunteers were exposed to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for 25 minutes before reading stories involving morally questionable characters, and being asked to judge their actions. The researchers found that when the RTPJ was disrupted volunteers were more likely to judge actions solely on the basis of whether they caused harm — not whether they were morally wrong in themselves. The scientists didn't permanently remove the subjects' moral sensibilities and on the scientists' seven point scale, the difference was about one point, averaging out to about a 15 percent change, 'but it's still striking to see such a change in such high level behavior as moral decision-making.' Young points out that the study was correlation; their work only links the RTJP, morality, and magnetic fields, but doesn't definitively prove that one causes another."
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Magnetism Can Sway Man's Moral Compass

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  • by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:08PM (#31675398) Homepage Journal

    The researchers found that when the RTPJ was disrupted volunteers were more likely to judge actions solely on the basis of whether they caused harm — not whether they were morally wrong in themselves.

    What distinction are they making between the two? There are philosophies that would hold the two ideas as identical.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:12PM (#31675480) Journal
    I'm guessing that the "Your Honor, I had a giant morals-scrambling magnet pressed against my head at the time" defense should be pretty easy to confirm or deny...

    Now, as for the broader use, yeah, this research does indeed suggest that, for instance, somebody with a tumor or lesion in the area that the researchers were scrambling might well be "insane" in the sense of having impaired moral cognition, without overt psychosis or anything similarly dramatic. That isn't really "abuse" though. That's an enhancement of our understanding how how the brain works.

    However, I'm not sure that the "Yup, I have a permanently defective capacity for moral cognition" defense would be something that you would pursue unless you, in fact, do. Indefinite commitment to a secure psychiatric facility isn't exactly a walk in the park, even compared to prison.
  • by spun (1352) <loverevolutionary@nOSpam.yahoo.com> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:14PM (#31675522) Journal

    How can magnets impact my moral choices? Isn't my soul supposed to do that? Is my soul a magnet? Maybe free will is magnetic. Or MAYBE, just maybe, those things don't exist except as concepts in the human mind.

  • Re:The difference? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by WNight (23683) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:26PM (#31675682) Homepage

    So they've invented an irrationality filter?

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:32PM (#31675826) Homepage Journal

    It doesn't sound like a sound defense. Moral judgements have nothing to do with legality; there's nothing immoral about smoking pot, for example. Whether you're talking about Druids, Christians, Jews, Hindus, any religion, none have any injunction against smoking pot. Smoking pot harms no one. The marijuana laws were passed by lies (see the propaganda movie "Reefer Madness"). Laws are subjective; they are NOT based on morality. Adultery is immoral (and harmful), yet there's no law against it in my state.

    What confuses me, (and I RTFA just because it did confuse me, and TFA gave no answer) is what kinds of moral delimmas did they present?

    The researchers found that when the RTPJ was disrupted volunteers were more likely to judge actions solely on the basis of whether they caused harm -- not whether they were morally wrong in themselves.

    I can't think of anything that's morally wrong that doesn't cause harm. Did I read the wrong FA?

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:34PM (#31675842) Homepage

    What did they do to distinguish scrambling of moral judgement from simple scrambling of judgement? Seems to me that people who are simply having trouble thinking clearly are likely to make these mistakes. Someone whose ability to think at all is impaired might very well assert that the guy who let his girl walk across the unsafe bridge was blameless because they lost track of the fact that he knew it was unsafe.

  • by jeffmeden (135043) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:39PM (#31675928) Homepage Journal

    It's important to note that the research focused on moral judgements about the *intentions* of actions, not on the actions and outcomes themselves. So, a person with a disrupted brain might not see a problem with wanting to steal a car, but they can still fully grasp the weight of actually stealing the car. Since moral judgement is lost on some people anyway, the normal effects of punishment should still be as effective, with or without disruption via magnetic field. Ergo, using this as a defense is about as probable as getting in front of the judge and saying "well no one was there to tell me *not* to steal it, your honor".

  • by LockeOnLogic (723968) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:44PM (#31676010)
    Read the article from MIT, not the other sources. You'll notice a distinct difference. I hate to see good research get misrepresented.

    The non-MIT articles makes grand claims that are NOWHERE in the real research. The "journalists" makes large claims about the existence of a "moral center" of the brain. The actual study and the MIT summary gives a much more restrained and accurate description. It shows that temporary disruption of TPJ interferes with the complete normal process which draws upon many areas of the brain.

    Let's use a train analogy to get away from car analogies.

    In order for a train to go from A to B, there must be intact railing the whole way. If we alter a section of the track and derail the train, it does NOT prove that the removed section is the train transportation center of the railroad track. It is essential, but it is only part of the process. The disruption of this area of the brain only shows that it is essential in the complete processing of moral judgement, not the center itself. I'm not talking down this research, only the journalistic representation of it.
  • by characterZer0 (138196) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:45PM (#31676016)

    Or maybe, just maybe, the soul and brain are connected.

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:49PM (#31676086) Homepage

    > Except Milgram showed that a few people are completely immune to coercion by
    > authority.

    Milgram used no coercion.

    > This equipment will probably work on anyone.

    But it won't make them follow your orders. "Here's a gun. I'll pay you $10,000 if you'll take it and kill that guy." "No, that would be wrong." "Put this helmet on." "Ok." "Now again, I'll pay you $10,000 if you'll kill that guy." "Naw. Too much trouble. I'll just kill you and take the money." BAM!

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:54PM (#31676194)
    So... what you call "soul" is nothing but an emergent property of your brain? Doesn't that render the term meaningless? Isn't the soul supposed to be a transcendental component, which is by definition rather not to be influenced by a mere magnet?
  • by LockeOnLogic (723968) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:54PM (#31676198)
    So, strong magnetic fields can disrupt the soul?
  • Re:The difference? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nedlohs (1335013) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:57PM (#31676246)

    Except that isn't the difference they are referring to.

    They are referring to the following cases:

    1. Driving recklessly outside a school at dismissal time, but not hitting anyone.

    2. Driving recklessly outside a school at dismissal time, and hitting someone.

    Most people (though not all...) would consider both cases morally equivalent. It's not the hitting someone that is the immoral action, it's the placing them in danger in the first place.

  • So... what you call "soul" is nothing but an emergent property of your brain?

    Why? What makes you jump to the conclusion that because two things are connected, therefore one must be caused by the other - and specifically that you get to choose which one that is?

    Connected does not mean "causal".

    If the "soul" (if it exists) is connected to the brain, and the magnet interferes with this connection, why is it surprising that behaviour also changes?

    Because, if the soul-mind connection can be interefered with, that negates the moral purpose of the soul as repository for merits and demerits caused by good and bad actions. If your bad actions can result from a bad connection, then the soul (and the self) should not accrue the demerits, bad karma, stains, evil, or whatever you want to call it. Because if they did, then I could go to hell for walking under a strong magnet.

  • by cmiller173 (641510) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:23PM (#31676748)

    >>> "Your Honor, I had a giant morals-scrambling magnet pressed against my head at the time"

    That's what she said.

    No, She said "Your Honor, he had a giant morals-scrambling magnet pressed against my head at the time"

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:23PM (#31676766)
    What meaning has the term "connected" if there is no causal dependency between the connected things whatsoever? If, as you say, the magnet interferes with the connection between soul and brain, then this connection is demonstrably physical - and by extension, also the soul, which, then, in other words, is just an emergent property of the brain.
  • by Scrameustache (459504) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:33PM (#31676960) Homepage Journal

    Isn't the soul supposed to be a transcendental component, which is by definition rather not to be influenced by a mere magnet?

    It's been said to be influenced by mere diet, or simply by seeing someone naked. Souls are easily altered.

  • by genner (694963) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:38PM (#31677086)

    What meaning has the term "connected" if there is no causal dependency between the connected things whatsoever? If, as you say, the magnet interferes with the connection between soul and brain, then this connection is demonstrably physical - and by extension, also the soul, which, then, in other words, is just an emergent property of the brain.

    Your brain is physically connected to your foot.
    Does this make your foot an emergent property of the brain as well?
    Better take it out of your mouth and check.

  • Re:Causation (Score:2, Insightful)

    by JWyner (653364) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:39PM (#31677104)
    Designed experiments *attempt* to establish causation. They don't necessarily do so, as they can (and often do) establish instead a causal link via a secondary system.

    In this case, for example, the actual research article states that the researchers believe the magnetic fields disrupt the ability for the subject to properly evaluate the intentions of the story protagonist, thus altering the outcome of their moral evaluation. This is different from fundamentally changing the subject's underlying moral framework.

    Thus, the current study does show a causal link, but only between magnetism and perception, not a causal link between magnetism and morality.

    By the current logic, if I throw a brick at your face and you stopped walking, I could then argue that bricks thrown at faces cause legs to cease functioning...


    ....prepares to be buried for daring to argue with the reductionists...
  • The BBC article seems to characterize these test subjects as unable to correctly assess risk.

    That's cognitively quite different from assessing risk but not caring. On the basis of what's been presented here, I don't see any data which support the claim that moral reasoning is diminished in these subjects.

    It turns out that the problem is not in the research, but in oversimplification by the news media. If you want a more accurate idea of what's going on, take a look at the original papers by Young et al [mit.edu]. For example:

    Participants even judged attempted harms
    (e.g., attempting, but failing to poison someone) as more permissible than accidental harms (e.g.,
    accidentally poisoning someone).

    In that example, risk is quite accurately assessed. In the first case, no one was harmed, thus, no risk. In the second case, accidental though it was, someone was harmed and there was obviously risk.

    I'd call that a failure of moral reasoning. Young even uses the phrase 'moral reasoning' multiple times for names of his papers, on the very page you link to.

  • by benjamindees (441808) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:51PM (#31677342) Homepage

    Causing other people to take time out of their lives to scrape you off the asphalt and sew you back together, all while having my taxes and/or health insurance premiums pay for it

    See what I mean? People lose their shit along with all sense of causality whenever driving without wearing a seatbelt is mentioned. I would even guess that this guy is in the majority.

    And by the same argument, people like this shouldn't leave the house without wearing a helmet, for the benefit of everyone else of course.

  • by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster@man.gmail@com> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:10PM (#31677642)

    How can a hypothetical God judge us for our choices, if our choices can be screwed up by a 'bad connection?' Maybe I was going to make the right choice, but a damn supernova sent a magnetic pulse through my head. I'm sorry, but it just seems laughable.

    From a Christian viewpoint (sorry, not informed enough to give you any others), by setting the bar for morality high yet still being gracious. In other words, everyone is a sinner, but everyone can be forgiven through Jesus. So, it doesn't matter if you're 99.999% moral or just 85% moral, you're still not good enough by your own merits.

    From the more Jewish standpoint, judgments were frequently reduced for those who were tricked or otherwise not aware of their sins. Check Genesis 20 for an example of someone (king Abimelech) who had been tricked into sinning and was forgiven because of that. And even here, Abraham (the one doing the tricking) was allowed to return to grace with repentance.

    In any case, it does not matter how unlikely the stimulus, this research proves how ludicrous absolute concepts like 'good' and 'evil' really are. If the connection between soul and mind is anything less than 100% perfect, there are NO moral absolutes.

    I disagree. There can be actions which are good or evil. There can be people which are good or evil. There does not need to be (nor is there) 100% correlation between the two (good men performing only good actions, and vice-vers-a).

    So this research may show how unlikely it is for people to be absolutely good or evil, from both the Christian and Jewish viewpoints this is entirely consistent (and commonly referenced). I'm not sure about any other religions or dogmas.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:29PM (#31677926)

    What, a 15% increase in focus on actual outcomes rather imputed intent based on extremely abstract (and in fact utterly impossible) hypothetical situations? What would that be useful for, exactly?

    Hand out "end justify the means" helmets to all of the soldiers you command, and you'll get less backtalk and desertion when it comes time to burn villages, rape children, and gun down peaceful protesters for the glory of the republic.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:49PM (#31678158)

    I can't think of anything that's morally wrong that doesn't cause harm.

    Really? What about attempted murder?

    The study compares scenarios like this: you're in the break room at a chemical plant and pour your friend some coffee and put some "sugar" in it:

    1) In one case, you got the powder from the sugar jar and quite reasonably believed it was sugar, but it was actually poison, and your friend dies.

    2) In the other case, you got the powder from a poison jar and were trying to kill your friend, but the powder was actually sugar and your friend lives.

    Most adults consider #1 unfortunate in outcome but morally OK because of intent, and #2 fortunate in outcome but morally wrong because of intent.

    Those who are unable to comprehend intent (young children, people with brain damage, and experimental subjects with that part of their brain temporarily shut down with a powerful magnet) judge these scenarios the opposite way -- they look at morality only by the outcome, not the intent.

  • by tolkienfan (892463) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:25PM (#31678670) Journal
    In what way can it be said to exist if it has no physical manifestation and has no measurable effect on the world, and can not be detected in any way whatsoever?
  • by Culture20 (968837) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:58PM (#31679122)
    So conduct the exact same experiment with different questions like non-moral financial "could have beens".
    "Fred invested all of his money into one stock and got 100% return. Bill invested gradually with dollar cost averaging using a fixed percentage of income and got a 35% return. Whose strategy is more sound?

"You don't go out and kick a mad dog. If you have a mad dog with rabies, you take a gun and shoot him." -- Pat Robertson, TV Evangelist, about Muammar Kadhafy

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