An unusual finding about how we form moral judgments was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Scientists have found a surprising link between magnets and morality, and the fact that our “moral compass” can be changed in an instant by sending a magnetic impulse to the center of the brain, nears the right ear. I found the correlation between “moral compass” and magnets intriguing, so I wanted to learn more.

Liane Young, a researcher in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her colleagues used a technique called “transcranial magnetic stimulation,” or TMS, to temporarily reduce the amount of activity near the surface of the brain behind the right ear, known as the right temporoparietal junction. This portion of the brain is used to help us interpret the reason behind what other people are doing – or our forming of judgment.

In the study, subjects read stories designed to produce a moral judgment. One story told of a woman named Grace who put powder in her friend’s coffee that she believed to be sugar, but turned out to be poison, and the friend died. Another version of the same scenario had Grace putting poison into her friend’s coffee, and it turned out to be sugar and the friend was fine.

Most people would generally forgive Grace for accidentally putting poison in her friend’s coffee, but condemn her for intentionally trying to kill her.  “We judge people not just for what they do, but what they’re thinking at the time of their action, what they’re intending,” Young says. “But,” she says, “a brief magnetic pulse was able to change that.”

Twenty of the subjects received a jolt of TMS either before or during the time they were reading the stories, like the ones about Grace and the coffee. The TMS caused the subjects to pay closer attention to the outcome of the story than the intention. “If no harm was done, then subjects would judge [Grace’s behavior] as OK,” Young says, even if the story made it clear Grace was trying to poison her friend.

This type of moral judgment is what you see in children around the ages of 3 or 4, Young says. Other studies have indicated that children of this age that a child who breaks several toys or cups accidentally is naughtier than a child who breaks only one on purpose. To them the number of breaks is more important than the intent because their brains are not developed enough to understand the intentions of others.

Dr. Joshua Greene of Harvard University says, “The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait.” “But that view isn’t accurate,” he added.

“Moral judgment is just a brain process,” says Greene. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.”

According to Greene, this study is only a part of a much larger picture scientists are looking at in order to explain how the brain is able to create moral judgments. “The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms,” he says. Future research will give us even more to understand.





About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



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