The major discovery here, Young says, is not that this magnetic tool can hinder moral judgments, but that any interference with the RTPJ can have an effect.
"It's less about a 'moral center in the brain' and more about how we infer another's mental state when making judgments about their actions – and mis-infer … after transient disruption of the RTPJ," says Kristina Visscher, assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
In the past, researchers have found evidence that the RTPJ may play a key role in our moral judgments. One study by Young found that people who naturally had more activity in the RTPJ were more likely to forgive those who cause harm unintentionally, for example.
"This region has been associated with higher cognitive abilities for a good while," says Dr. Peter Fox, director of the Research Imaging Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center. "It has been called a convergent zone, or association area, because it processes multiple different kinds of information," but only recently have scientists investigated how the RTPJ is specifically needed for moral cognition, he says.
"Previous studies…have shown that this brain region lights up when you are making moral judgments, so this study predicted you could impair that function…and it did," he says.
With these results, Young says, for the first time there is evidence to suggest a causal relationship between RTPJ and morality -- that you can zap this part of the brain and see direct results in how well we make moral decisions.
Holy brain waves, Batman!