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Biotech Science

Magnetism Can Sway Man's Moral Compass 586

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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  • Re:The difference? (Score:5, Informative)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:09PM (#31675418)
    A lot of activities and mental states which do not harm people are considered morally wrong. For example, homosexuality, coveting and envy, pride, "thoughtcrime" in the novel, 1984, etc.
  • The difference between 'likely to cause harm' and 'did cause harm.' In one question, they asked if it was morally wrong to let your girlfriend walk across a bridge you knew was dangerous, even if she made it to the other side safely. Magnetized folks thought, 'well she made it across, it's morally okay' while other people were more likely to think it was wrong even if she was unharmed this particular time.

  • Doesn't change much (Score:2, Informative)

    by digitaldrunkenmonk ( 1778496 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:26PM (#31675678)

    A small change in moral response, and even then, it isn't as if they turned off the moral center. Looks like they just caused the subjects to focus on the effect of the action than the reasons behind it. It's almost like they muffled some of the higher reasoning functions behind morality and changed the focus from "The person's action resulted in [x], though he didn't mean it to" to "The person's action resulted in [x]".

    They didn't kill morality; they hastened the response to a morally vague event. Black and white, no grey.

  • by DaveV1.0 ( 203135 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:36PM (#31675876) Journal

    Person A accidentally breaks five tea cups while cleaning. Person B purposefully breaks one tea cup.

    Most people would say that B's actions were "more wrong" than A's.
    People who had their RTPJ disrupted said that A was "more wrong" because of the extent of the damage.

    Another example they gave was that people with their RTPJ disrupted would say that accidentally poisoning someone was worse than attempting to poison someone and failing.

  • by neonleonb ( 723406 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:39PM (#31675912) Homepage

    TMS works by using quickly-changing magnetic fields to induce electric fields and neural firing. After 25 minutes of this, the neurons in that region are thoroughly worn out and don't function right for a while (see research on "temporary lesions").

    This isn't about magnetic fields in general, just about very strong, quickly-changing ones applied to this one spot for a long time. This is among the most sensational writeup I've ever seen, and it totally misrepresents the point.

  • by infinite9 ( 319274 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:53PM (#31676178)

    What it sounds like to me is, someone found humanity's Asperger switch.

    (I have Asperger's Syndrome)

    AS is so much more than this. It causes 100 little problems that all add up to making your life suck.

    From my own personal experience I know that people with AS have trouble reading facial expressions because they're never looking at people faces. This is because eye contact is uncomfortable (i'd call it more like creepy, or heebee-jeebees, it still happens to me). Because it's uncomfortable, they never learn to read it. I've started forcing myself to look at facial expressions in an attempt to read people's eyes. I'm slowly starting to be able to do this.

    As other examples, my gait is subtly wrong. I have a hard time identifying the source of certain emotions. And I'm sometimes not to good at reading the positions of my arms and legs.

    I think it's more than just a magnetic switch. I think it's a biochemical problem that causes development problems that propagate throughout your life.

  • Causation (Score:5, Informative)

    by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:08PM (#31676442) Homepage

    "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."

    What is it with Slashdotters' completely fucked-in-the-head understanding of correlation vs. causation? The article says exactly the opposite of this summary!

    "Recent fMRI studies of moral judgment find fascinating correlations, but Young et al usher in a new era by moving beyond correlation to causation," says Sinnott-Armstrong, who was not involved in this research.

    And that was completely obvious without even needing to see the article anyway. This is a designed experiment. Designed experiments establish causation. (See Weiss, Introductory Statistics 7E, p. 22, et. al.) Obviously a person's moral judgements aren't causing the magnet that you're switching on-and-off to work. For chrissake.

  • TED talk (Score:2, Informative)

    by slinches ( 1540051 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:08PM (#31676448)

    There's a TED talk [] from last year on this subject from the lead researcher, Rebecca Saxe.

  • by starfishsystems ( 834319 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:33PM (#31676964) Homepage
    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 []. 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).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:48PM (#31677288)
    It's supposed to be a play on "Holmes" (as in Sherlock).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:53PM (#31677376)

    The fact that there was no harm doesn't mean there was no risk. You simply can't look backward like that to make judgments on probability.

    If you roll a die and it comes up 6, would you then retroactively say there was a 100% chance it would come up 6?
    Does pulling the trigger and living mean that Russian Roulette is not risky?
    If you run out into traffic and manage not to get run down, does that mean what you did was safe (ie, not risky)?

    Judging a decision by its outcome rather than by its process is a common error, but an error none the less.

  • by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:23PM (#31677834) Homepage Journal

    Smoking pot harms no one... Adultery is immoral (and harmful)...

    Thank you for neatly disproving your own argument. Both of these things are pure opinion, it is trivial to argue both in either direction.

    And, fwiw, the moral dilemmas they posed were of the lines of "sally and alice are at a chemical plant. alice gives sally a cup of coffee and in it she puts what she thinks is sugar but it's really poison. was alice wrong in giving the coffee to sally?" vs "sally and alice are at a chemical plant. alice gives sally a cup of coffee and also adds some poison to it while sally thinks it only has sugar in it. was alice wrong in giving the coffee to sally?" And so on and so forth in various ways that include the poison working and the poison being ineffective, in either the malicious or the benign scenario. These approach the issue of doing harm vs intending to do harm, for outcomes that are either benign or harmful, which illustrates the extent at which someone is willing to classify something as "wrong" depending on the intent AND the outcome.

  • by spun ( 1352 ) <loverevolutionar ... m ['oo.' in gap]> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:14PM (#31678566) Journal

    And "Wilson" is "Watson." There are many more parallels with the Sherlock Holmes series, according to the creators of "House."

The rich get rich, and the poor get poorer. The haves get more, the have-nots die.