Monday, March 29, 2010

How Stimulating a Part of the Brain with Magnets Can Make a Person Less Effective in Moral Judgment - What Does This Imply about Cellphone Use?

Scientists are getting to know the brain a lot these days by establishing which parts are responsible for certain things like moral judgment. In previous experiments, it's been determined that the region called the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) is involved in moral decisions or interpretation. The finding was the result of fMRI brain imaging experiments and not supported by actual psychological tests. Researcher Liane Young decided to find out for herself if the conclusion was true.

Young disrupted the brain cells in the TPJ region (left) temporarily by using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. Simply put, it's the exposure of the part of the brain to a magnetic field. It's temporary and does not require surgery. With subjects that were asked questions about the morality of certain situations, Young determined that moral decision-making became more based on the outcome or result rather than on the act or premeditation of the act itself.

In one test, the participants first got their TPJs stimulated and then were asked to read about specific situations and were then asked to judge the person involved. A second test had their TPJs stimulated during the time when they were making the moral judgments. According to Young, the subjects failed to correctly judge attempts to harm even when the act was not committed. They perceived these as more permissible, whereas accidents, where no one is really at fault, was regarded as morally wrong.

The results raises questions on whether the "good" upbringing and knowledge of a person may actually be useless in the face of a simple brain stimulation, when it comes to deciding whether something is immoral or not. Does this mean that by simply exposing the TPJ of someone to a magnetic field, you can make the person decide that something is morally sound even if it is usually interpreted as immoral? If a simple magnetic field is enough to stimulate "moral blurring" what can the strong magnetic fields from cellhpones do to it? Does this explain why men and women seem to be more prone to cheating if they have a cellphone? What do you think of the artwork by Alexandro Goncalves de Lima (left)?

The results of the experiments were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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