Strong Magnetic Fields Muddle Moral Inferences

Early this week, researchers from MIT’s moral psychology lab announced a provocative new discovery. By applying a strong magnetic pulse through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) in the brain, researchers were able to create a measurable difference in the capacity of people to infer the intentions of others. This change manifested itself in trials as an increase in “all’s well that ends well” perceptions. In other words, the subjects were more likely to judge the morality of an event based on its outcome than the means to achieve it.

The TPJ section of the brain was long known to obtain a heightened state of activity when subjects consider the beliefs and intentions of others. This capacity, our ability to empathize with people’s motivations as well as conceive of our own mental states, is known as theory of mind. It’s this function that MIT’s neuroscientists sought to disrupt. By calibrating the strength of the magnetic field on parts of the brain associated with motor movements (it’s tuned just right when it makes you twitch), researches then moved the TMS to a spot on the scalp above and behind the right ear, nearest the location of the TPJ. In two separate trials, the researchers used half second pulses as well as 25 minute exposures while requesting the subjects to consider moral hypotheticals. The pulse study activated the TMS at the moment of moral judgement for questions like the following: would it be permissible for a man to allow his sweetheart to walk across a bridge known to be unsafe, even if her crossing is uneventful? The trial employing prolonged TMS exposure required the subjects to read scenarios about morally dubious situations and rank character’s actions based on their perceived permissibility. The hypothetical employed in this study was one in which a person asks another to get them coffee, and that person complies, but adds powder from a substance labeled “toxic” that turns out coincidentally to be sugar. In both studies, the MIT researchers found that during exposure to the TSM, subjects were more likely to view negligence and failed attempts at harm as being morally permissible. While the TPJ is only one component of the larger morality mechanism within the brain, demonstrating effects from magnetic interference on higher-order thinking is simply amazing. More studies with larger sample sizes are necessary, however, as the effect, while statistically significant, is confined to a small minority of tested subjects.

It’s worth pointing out that these TMS machines are not your wacky aunt’s magnetic chakra charging nipple rings. The TMS works by creating a strong magnetic field which induces weak electric currents in the cells of your brain. This basically short-circuits the cells temporarily, and significantly impairs their ability to fire properly. Conventional magnets cannot influence a person in this way, and this research should not be used by alternative medicine practitioners as proof that magnetized hats and shoe soles do anything more than project gullibility.

I can’t help but imagine that some military technologist’s ears perked up when he first heard of this research. It’s tantalizing to think that future efforts at riot control or infantry warfare may employ some device capable of interfering with basic mental processes, producing cognitive disorientation and combat ineffectiveness. This discovery is a far cry from that sort of weapon, but it does contribute significantly to our understanding of the physiology of thought, which is a potential step towards that application, along with a plethora of potential civilian uses from treating chronic depression to Asperger’s Syndrome.


~ by Wil Finley on April 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “Strong Magnetic Fields Muddle Moral Inferences”

  1. How about interrogation techniques? Zap the TPJ area and ask something like,
    “If you tell us everything you know, everyone will be happy for ever after!”

    uhhh… OK!

  2. Haha, maybe some day. It would be nice to redefine “enhanced interrogation” as something other than torture.

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