30 March 2010

Scrambling the moral compass with a magnet

I suppose it was the title of the Mail article that piqued my interest. It looks like scientists have discovered a real-life 'moral compass' in the brain that controls how we judge other people's behaviour. The region, which lies just behind the right ear, becomes more active when we think about other people's misdemeanours or good works.

Strangely researchers were able to use powerful magnets to disrupt this area of the brain and make people temporarily less moral. It seems that our sense of right and wrong may not be based on upbringing, religion or philosophy, but by the biology of our brains.

The ”moral compass” lies in a part of the brain called the right temporo-parietal junction. It lies near the surface of the brain, just behind the right ear. The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt the area of the brain.

This generates a magnetic field on a small part of the skull which creates weak electric currents in the brain. These currents interfere with nearby brain cells and prevent them from firing normally.

In the first experiment, 12 volunteers were exposed to the magnetic field for 25 minutes before they were given a series of 'moral maze' style scenarios. For each of the 192 scenarios, they were asked to make a judgement about the character's actions on a scale of 1 for 'absolutely forbidden' to 7 for 'absolutely permissible'.

In the second experiment, the magnetic field was applied to their heads at the time they were asked to weigh up the behaviour of the characters in the scenario. In both experiments, the magnetic field made the volunteers less moral.

One scenario described a man who let his girlfriend walk over a bridge he knew was unsafe. The girl survived unharmed. Under normal conditions, most people rate the man's behaviour as unacceptable. But after getting the magnetic pulse, the volunteers tended to see nothing wrong with his actions - and judged his behaviour purely on whether his girlfriend survived.

Another scenario described two girls visiting a chemical plant where one girl asks her friend to put sugar in her coffee. The friend uses powder from a jar marked 'toxic' - but as the powder turns out to be sugar, the girls if unharmed. Volunteers with a disrupted moral compass tended to rate the girl's behaviour as permissible because her friend was not injured - even though she was aware the powder came from a jar labelled toxic.

Throughout the experiment, irresponsible or deliberate actions that might have resulted in harm were seen as morally acceptable if the story had a 'happy ending', they reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Somehow I get the feeling that this is not quite the full story. But the idea of scrambling people’s morality with a big magnet does appeal. I feel an evil plot for world domination coming on. All I need is a white Persian puss. MWUAHAHAHAHAHAHA

14 comments:

Andrew Scott said...

I noticed this reported on ScienceDaily, I think, today, and it reminded me of the big magnetic fields I was repeatedly exposed to throughout my PhD while working on the most powerful NMR machine. Did I walk out of the room a changed man? There was a chap who seemed to do a fair bit of chatting up of a young lass in that room - maybe he knew about this stuff already?

beakerkin said...

Does anyone expect morality in a University whose most well known faculty member is Pol Pot's cheerleader Noam Chomsky. One would more probably find morality in Curious George than George Galloway.

syncopated eyeball said...

In Sydney this magnet thing is being researched as a treatment for depression. The charge is from a battery and is very small, I guess they are applied to different areas.

Skuds said...

It is just the Mail setting you up for a follow-up story about mobile phones turning everybody into degenerates - just wait and see.

susan said...

Now I know why so many people are wearing magnetic earmuffs.

jams o donnell said...

Ah Andrew you colleague may have known the secret!

I think a different department can operate well even if Chomsky works there Beakerkin

I didn't know that syncopated

Haha, Strangely there was not one mention of asylum seekers in the article. Now that IS unusual for the Mail!

I'd not heard of magnetic earmuffs Susan.

CherryPie said...

Fascinating!

jams o donnell said...

Glad you liked it Cherie

Colin Campbell said...

I don't need magnets to lose my moral compass.

jams o donnell said...

Ten pints of Heavy works for me Colin!

Steve Bates said...

Maybe what we need is a moral gyrocompass... <grin />

jams o donnell said...

Haha Steve , Very true!

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Uhu... that explains that scar near the right ear I discovered recently. Obviously it has to do with the induction into... you know...

jams o donnell said...

Funny you should mention it Snoopy...