Magnets Scramble Ability to Make Moral Judgements

on April 3, 2010
Featured in News to Know

If a magnet can scramble one’s ability to make sound moral judgments, does that imply morality is all in our minds?

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We’ve reported in the past on scientists who have investigated the relationship between religion and the human mind—see, for example, News to Note editions from February 2009, March 2009, and April 2009. Now, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that subjects’ senses of morality can be altered with a magnetic blast to the brain.

“To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”

The team, led by Liane Young, experimented on twenty subjects in experiments that asked the subjects to make a moral judgment after hearing or reading a fictional account. In one test, subjects received a half-second magnetic pulse delivered on their scalp. They were then asked to judge the morality of a man who allowed his girlfriend to cross a bridge that the man knew was unsafe. Although such an action would typically be considered immoral, the subjects instead made moral judgments based on whether the girlfriend crossed the bridge safely. If so, the boyfriend was considered to have behaved appropriately.

In a second test, the subjects received a magnetic pulse for 25 minutes, then read stories that included morally dubious behavior. Yet again, the subjects judged the morality of the fictional actions based on whether they directly caused harm, not on whether the behaviors were inherently wrong. That is, if everything in the story “turned out all right” despite behavior that would typically be considered immoral, the subjects concluded that the behavior was moral.

The type of magnetic pulses administered by Young’s team, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), temporarily interrupt the normal function of brain cells. The team achieved the result by targeting the TMS at an area of the brain previously linked with thinking about others’ intentions.

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behaviour,” Young said. “To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.” But can one extend the study’s conclusion and argue that morality is all in the brain? By analogy, what if a similar study showed that a magnetic pulse interferes with subjects’ ability to do mathematics properly—would that show that mathematics is simply a human construction, “all in our heads”? Of course not. The fact that many humans have warped, abiblical senses of morality (though generally not due to magnetic pulses!) does not imply that an absolute moral code is a myth any more than mistaken ideas about math prove that mathematics may be “true for you, but not for me.”

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