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Imagine the implications of being able to alter the
moral judgement of someone? It poses both scary and fascinating prospects
doesn’t it? Could we somehow change our moral perception of terrorists? Or
adultery? Or, heaven forbid, create soldiers with even less moral gumption?
Seems the answer is yes.
I work in the neuro-rehabilitation field so shit like
this fascinates me; and apologies to those of you who don’t find it as exciting.
Back on March 29, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT) released findings in Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences on experiments they have been
conducting (see here for synopsis) on moral judgment.
when it comes to making moral judgments, two areas of the brain are engaged.
These two areas judge ‘intent’ and ‘outcome’. In seconds, millions of neural
exchanges take place between intent and outcome to determine whether we
consider something morally repugnant.
By way of example, imagine a situation where someone
is driving to work on a Tuesday morning. Their cell phone rings and they
instinctively reach for their cell phone while driving. Tragically, a traffic
accident results and 3 people are killed. When we look at this example, the
outcome is horrific (three people died) yet the intent (reaching for a cell
phone) is innocuous. Most folks would judge this as tragic but not morally
Now take another example. Imagine a situation where a
terrorist is boarding a bus with a bomb strapped to their body. As the bus
fills, the terrorist detonates the bomb, but there is a glitch in the timing
mechanism and it fails to go off and no one is injured. When we look at this
example, the outcome is innocuous (no one is injured or harmed) yet the intent
(planning to maim and kill innocent civilians) is horrific. Everyone would
judge this as moral repugnant.
We know that the right temporo-pariental junction
(TPJ) in the brain plays a significant role in messaging us about ‘intent’. The
temporo-pariental junction is located just behind our right ears (interestingly
enough where we tend to hold our cell phones for hours on end!).
Our MIT researchers had volunteers take a test where
they had to read a group of scenarios and make moral judgments of character’s
actions on a scale of one (absolutely forbidden) to seven (absolutely
Now, the neat/scary/fascinating part. As the
volunteers made these decisions, they were submitted to a non-invasive
procedure where transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was applied. TMS is
essentially a wee magnet that disrupts the neuronal activity around the TPJ so
that is doesn’t fire as it normally should.
The result, sure enough, with the area of the brain
that provides feedback on ‘intent’ derailed, volunteers made decisions wholly on
‘outcome’. So, in our examples, the person in the traffic accident was morally
repugnant and the terrorist (where no one was injured) was seen as morally
Chilling isn’t it? ….
It is fascinating, thanks for sharing. I’m reminded that Buddhist teaching places equal weight on both intent and action. Thinking harmful thoughts towards someone is just as much of a sin as actually harming them.
you really have to take this with a big grain of salt. first of all, nobody even understands how tms works and what it does. then, it has been very difficult to verify many of these tms findings; pretty much the only thing anyone is certain about is the work that has been done involving tms stimulation of m1 (motor cortex) because you can observe a direct motor output of the stimulation and know that you are really hitting where you want to hit. also, i would want to know a good deal about the stimulation type (did they use rtms or single pulse?), parameters (in particular, when did they decide to trigger the stimulation), etc in order to be able to judge if this experiment was done such that i could believe the result.that being said…. it is an interesting study.