From David DiSalvo’s “NeuropPsyched” at Forbes’blog, we learn about “Five Big Developments in Neuroscience to Watch” (June 17, 2011), such as:
4. Altering Moral Judgments with MagnetismResearch of the last couple decades has shown that injuries to a part of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, can change a patient’s moral judgments. When these patients are asked to answer morally challenging questions that weigh the life of one person against others, they consistently make utilitarian decisions without feeling the least bit uneasy. Their moral judgments about life and death, so vexing to most of us, become clinical and routine.
Researchers have recently found that they can induce a similar effect using magnetism (transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS) to disrupt RTPJ activity. When participants were exposed to magnetic “bursts” from a TMS device, their judgments about what is morally permissible significantly changed. For example, they were more likely to say that intending to harm another was morally permissible if the other person luckily avoided becoming a victim; they considered the intention of the first person to be irrelevant. The effect was only temporary, but the implications are massive. Most of us consider moral judgment a higher order thought process, but this research shows that it can be tweaked by a weak magnetic field in a matter of minutes.
Some confusion evident here: Moral judgment, like any other thought process, is susceptible to influence. What of the millennia-old practice of getting people drunk before proposing actions that they would never commit while sober? It’s fairly reliable and much more straightforward. It also says nothing about morality as a thought process in itself: A morally better person would not have got so drunk in the first place.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose