Magnets and morality

Medical News Today makes me feel uncomfortable… oh, no, wait, it’s a GOOD thing!… about the way magnets can alter our moral judgement:

Ten years ago [Dr Rebecca Saxe, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT] identified that the TPJ [temporo-parietal junction] played a role in theory of mind and wrote about it in her PhD thesis in 2003. Since then she has been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that the right TPJ is active when people are asked to make moral judgements that require them to think about the intentions of others.

Other studies have also shown that the TPJ is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, their beliefs and their thoughts.

In this case, instead of the usual fMRI, they did two sets of experiments where they used a non-invasive method called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to apply a magnetic field to a small area of the skull (on the scalp) to create weak electric currents that stop nearby brain cells from firing normally for a while.

In the first set of “offline stimulation” experiments, they exposed volunteers to the TMS method for 25 minutes and then asked them to take a test where they read about several scenarios and then had to judge the actions of the characters portrayed on a scale of one to seven (from “absolutely forbidden” to “absolutely permissible”).

For example, for one scenario they were asked to judge how permissible would it be for a man to allow his girlfriend to walk across a bridge he knew to be unsafe, even if she does eventually cross it safely. In such a scenario, judging the man solely on the outcome would hold him blameless, even though he apparently intended harm.

In the second set of “online stimulation” experiments, the volunteers underwent a 500-millisecond burst of TMS at the point when they were asked to make a moral judgement.

In both experiments, Saxe, Young and colleagues found that disrupting the right TPJ resulted in volunteers being more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible.

Normally, I’m excited by rTMS stuff, but this kind of terrifies me.