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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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:02PM (#31675284)

    Take it to your nearest prison and turn it on in reverse!

  • by hipp5 ( 1635263 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:02PM (#31675286)
    How long until this is used as a defense in court?
  • Ummm, sample size? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by musicalmicah ( 1532521 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:09PM (#31675414)
    A one-point difference on a seven-point scale among only twenty volunteers? Doesn't smell very solid to me.
  • Military use, ahoy! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:10PM (#31675440)

    I see a future where they'll have strong electromagnets embedded in military helmets, to ease everyone through the more morally dubious adventures overseas. Of course, in order to invent the helmet, you'd have to be already morally compromised, which would require an existing helmet... Or just a psychopath.

  • Morality? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by neostorm ( 462848 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:13PM (#31675508)

    What does this mean for someone like me, who lives life by my own idea of morality, which is "Do whatever you want as long as you bring no harm to another"?

    Maybe they're interpreting "harm" differently.

  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:15PM (#31675530)

    Very useful feature that.

  • Morality or empathy? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DdJ ( 10790 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:17PM (#31675576) Homepage Journal

    From the MIT article: "they found that the subjects' ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people's intentions".

    They don't appear to have claimed a general change to moral judgments of all types. They're saying that people were less able to make moral judgments that involved modeling someone else's internal state.

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

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:19PM (#31675600)

    The particular example I heard was: a person pours a cup of coffee for their friend, but puts some powder in it before serving. Here are two scenarios:

    1) The person believed the powder was poison and intended to poison their friend, but it turned out to be sugar and no harm was done, or
    2) The person believed the powder was sugar and intended no harm, but it turned out to be poison and the friend was made sick.

    Many people would agree that the action in the first case is immoral, despite the fact that no harm was done, and that the action in the second case is morally innocent if unfortunate. In this experiment, they found that people subjected to the particular magnetic effect on the RTPJ would tend to consider the first case innocent as well, since nothing bad actually happened.

  • What about the age? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:27PM (#31675716)

    It doesn't say about the age of the volunteers but I'd wager they're all students with no real life experience, I'd like to see them try this with older people, that had their morals tested and tried over the years, all the students have is the theory of what is right and wrong, but with no life experience to reinforce it. Aside from that I'm curious how this affects cops, criminals or others that have their morals tested heavily over the years, without significantly changing their path.

  • by spun ( 1352 ) <> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:31PM (#31675814) Journal

    Except Milgram showed that a few people are completely immune to coercion by authority. This equipment will probably work on anyone.

  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:45PM (#31676026)

    Hemp was used around the world as a strong and durably fiber in rope and fabric. It grew wild in most of the US. DOW chemicals invents and patents nylon. Within a few short years, marijuana was illegal and half the US covered with herbicide to to stamp out this "terrible weed". The war on drugs was a fabrication designed for the profit of a single powerful company.

  • by ShadowRangerRIT ( 1301549 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:48PM (#31676080)
    I wonder if that really means morality was affected, rather than abstract thought. At various stages of childhood brain development, it's difficult to imagine hypotheticals. Perhaps the part of their brain that envisions "could have beens" was disrupted, so they thought "she made it across safely, therefore that's the only possible result."
  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:02PM (#31676336) Homepage Journal

    What the parent is saying is that there is no such thing as soul.

    There is consciousness, there is our mind, there is the unconsciousness and it is all part of our physical self.

    Why is this a revelation?

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:02PM (#31676342)

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

    Cheat in a game of Solitaire? Its "wrong" to cheat, but nothing bad could possibly happen as a result?

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

    by Philosinfinity ( 726949 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:05PM (#31676382)

    ... and your argument would be wrong (no offense). Imagine a friend who is about to be killed. You could kill the would be killer and save your friend or you could let the scenario unfold naturally. Either choice causes harm by either allowing the death of a friend or causing the death of the killer. Even solid consequentionalists like Mill argued that when given a choice between actions, the moral road is not merely to minimize suffering but also to maximize happiness. Given for any choice that an action is either moral or not moral (law of the excluded middle), if two possible actions both yield no suffering or harm, then the moral choice is the action that then maximized happiness.

    Again, that's if you believe all that utilitarian garbage. What consequentionalist ethics does not address is the "accidental moral choice" where an unintended consequence makes an immorally intended act moral. Imagine that you see an enemy on the street and you go to puch him in the face. You miss and knock out a guy who has your enemy held up at gunpoint. In effect, you've saved your enemy's life even though the intent was to cause harm. Clearly, this cannot be a moral act. By example, one can understand that purely reviewing the consequences of an action cannot define that action moral or immoral.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:07PM (#31676430)

    If cotton and other natural textiles were also made illegal, I would be with you. Unfortunately, your reasoning doesn't pass a very simple sniff test.

    At least you didn't trot out the "it's a plant, so they can't tax it, man" bullshit. That's my least favorite hippie reason that weed is illegal.

    It was racism, ignorance, and a power grab. No complicated conspiracies. This isn't exactly hard to find out, so there's no reason to get all anti-corporate about it even though the temptation is strong. This isn't a very nice fact to trot out in our current "the government is the best nanny ever" environment, but too bad. Real is real, the government abuses power even worse than corporations. Sorry, hippies.

  • by digital photo ( 635872 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:11PM (#31676514) Homepage Journal

    You don't need to be a psychopath to do something that is immoral if you are convinced it is moral or right.

    Ie, if the helmet demonstrated an ability to reduce PTSD and anxiety/conflict on the battle field, it would be morally responsible to do so, as it would represent an improvement in military morale as well as better post-military life transition.

    The fact that it also impacts one's moral judgement might be good/bad depending on how one sees the situation. Ie, are soldiers' conflicted emotions causing a delay in reaction time? Is this resulting in more lives lost? If the helmet were to reduce reaction times and also reduce loss of life, then the use of said helmet would be moral.

    It all depends on the perspective....

  • by marianomd ( 1518677 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:32PM (#31676950)
    The brain is just an antenna that connects our soul in other dimension to the physical world as we know it. If you interfere the antenna, the soul is disconnected and the body works in offline mode.
  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:34PM (#31676978)

    Very useful feature that

    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?

    The questions the ask are full of magical reasoning: someone walks over a bridge you "know to be unsafe". What on earth does "unsafe" mean in this context and with what degree of certainty to you "know" it to be so? Does "unsafe" mean "everyone who walks over the bridge will die? Apparently not, because the magical question stipulates that it is crossed safely. So maybe this is just showing up a more literal frame of mind, that rejects the obviously bogus set-up information in favour of the factual outcome information.

    Personally, I'd like to investigate the morality of researchers who pretend to investigate moral reasoning by using extremely abstract, underspecified, self-contradictory hypotheticals as the basis for their work.

  • by spun ( 1352 ) <> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:11PM (#31677662) Journal

    Conviction is a feeling, it does not come from logic, it drives logic to find supporting evidence and spin a plausible story.

    A determinist knows they are part of an unending chain of cause and effect, and the cause of 'communicating an opinion' can have the effect of 'convincing someone of something.'

    The mind seeks to create a logical and self consistent story for our actions. If a random magnetic impulse can change my mind, and my mind is primed to create a self consistent story about itself, of course it would interpret that random impulse as originating inside itself. So, how can I know it was me that made any of my decisions?

  • Right, well, that's the problem, isn't it? I'm just evil from birth in your religion, and nothing I can possibly do can make up for that except begging forgiveness from the guy who set me up to fail.

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.