A team of neuroscientists claim it is possible to influence people's moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region called the the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ).
The study offers "striking evidence" that the right TPJ, located at the brain's surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, the authors say.
Previous studies have shown that the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people's intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects' ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people's intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.
The findings will appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
The researchers used a non-invasive technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to selectively interfere with brain activity in the right TPJ. A magnetic field applied to a small area of the skull creates weak electric currents that impede nearby brain cells' ability to fire normally, but the effect is only temporary.
In one experiment, volunteers were exposed to TMS for 25 minutes before taking a test in which they read a series of scenarios and made moral judgments of characters' actions on a scale of 1 (absolutely forbidden) to 7 (absolutely permissible).
In a second experiment, TMS was applied in 500-milisecond bursts at the moment when the subject was asked to make a moral judgment. For example, subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for someone to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely. In such cases, a judgment based solely on the outcome would hold the perpetrator morally blameless, even though it appears he intended to do harm.
In both experiments, the researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible. Therefore, the researchers believe that TMS interfered with subjects' ability to interpret others' intentions, forcing them to rely more on outcome information to make their judgments.
Lead author Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, said the findings are startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments.
"You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior," she says. "To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgments is really astonishing."
Citation: Young et al., 'Disruption of the right temporo-parietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgment', PNAS (In Press)
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