Magnet Mayhem: Modifying Morality with Magnets?

An electromagnetic jolt to your brain can temporarily impair your sense of morality.

No, this isn't a comic-book tale -- just the most recent research coming out of MIT's moral psychology lab.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that subjects were less able to judge the morality of others' actions when activity in the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) -- a region of the brain located above the right ear -- was disrupted by a strong magnetic field.

A picture of a man undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation.Play

"This suggests that there are multiple systems for morality and that you can selectively target and impair one at a time," says Liane Young, the lead author of the study. "The hope for moral psychologists is to discover the physical processes that give rise to moral decision and deconstruct morality by looking into the brain."

In the study, researchers asked twenty participants to read dozens of short narratives and rate characters' actions on a scale of one to seven -- one being forbidden and seven being completely permissible. While the subjects read and decided, researchers disrupted the function of their RTPJs using a powerful magnet. As a control, researchers would present similar moral questions while disrupting a different part of the brain, not believed to be associated with moral decisions.

One story presented a situation in which two girls are visiting a chemical plant and one fixes the other's tea using powder from a jar marked "toxic." Despite the label, the powder turns out to in fact, be sugar.

Under normal circumstances, most participants would factor in the girl's knowledge of the danger when deciding whether she did anything wrong. However, when Young and colleagues disrupted RTPJ activity, a subject was more likely to judge that her actions were without fault -- as long as the other girl wasn't harmed in the end.

"It typically matters to us when people cause harm intentionally; typically intent is the dominant factor in our moral judgments. What we showed here is that we can interrupt intention processing so people go more with the outcomes," Young says.

Compared to the control group, those who had their RTPJs disrupted during decision making were about 15 percent more likely to make moral decisions based solely on how a make-believe scenario came out -- a sort of "no harm, no foul" approach to morality.

Magnets for Good, Magnets for Evil

The magnet used by MIT researchers to disrupt brain activity is a special kind of technology -- "not a normal magnet," Young says. You can't turn your little brother into a super villain by making him wear a suit of refrigerator magnets.

But Young says that since the article came out, she's even had people e-mailing her to say they've removed all the magnets from their homes for fear of immoral urges.

The technology used by researchers, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, is merely a tool for interrupting brain activity, Young points out, so it's not that "magnets makes you immoral."

This same technology has been used to enhance the performance of certain parts of the brain, Young says, so these kinds of magnets can be used to help the brain as well as hinder it.

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!