Magnets make morals moot?

What does it mean to act morally?

Is it to cause benefit and not harm? Is it to do what’s right? Who gets to decide what’s right? While philosophers have been debating these questions for millennia, neuroscientists are now joining in the fun. In recent years, researchers have been taking pictures of people’s brains while moral judgments are being made to try to make sense of it all. In a recent article published in PNAS, a team of American researchers tried to find where morality lives in your brain.

The researchers used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS, see picture). In short, it consists of placing magnets near the participant’s head and applying a magnetic field targeted at a specific brain region. The current generated by the magnetic field can pass through the skull and disrupts the targeted brain region. The whole thing is non-invasive and not painful.

Using this technique, the researchers disrupted a region called the right temporoparietal junction while participants were making moral judgments on scenarios like this one:

“Grace and her friend are taking a tour of a chemical plant. When Grace goes over to the coffee machine to pour some coffee, the friend asks for some sugar in hers.”

There are then four potential outcomes, which participants rated on a scale ranging from permissible to forbidden:

  1. Grace thinks the powder is sugar, and it is sugar, so everyone stays alive and happy.
  2. Grace thinks the powder is sugar, but it’s actually toxic, and the friend dies.
  3. Grace thinks the powder is toxic, but it’s just sugar, so Grace’s evil plan is thwarted and the friend lives.
  4. Grace thinks the powder is toxic, and it is toxic, and the friend dies.

Some friend Grace is, right?

Anyway, the researchers found that participants who underwent the procedure made similar moral judgments as control participants in all the situations but one: the instance where Grace thinks the powder is toxic but it’s not (#3 above). In this case, participants who had a part of their brain disrupted by TMS thought Grace’s actions were significantly more permissible than control participants. One might say their moral judgment was altered. In fact, almost every single news story that reported on this article suggested that the interpretation of these results meant that TMS to the right temporoparietal junction of the brain leads to altered moral judgments. So that must be where morality resides!

Interestingly, even the researchers do not claim this. In the article, they write: “TMS did not disrupt participant’s ability to make any moral judgement.” Remember, the TMS subjects rated 3 out of 4 outcomes the same as control participants. That means their moral compass is intact. It is also important to note that in the case where TMS participants thought Grace’s actions were more permissible than the control participants, this difference was only of about 15%. So what’s going on? Well, one can judge the morality of an action based on a number of criteria. The easiest criterion is outcome: did the friend live or die? Children under 6 (before the “age of reason”) mostly use this criterion to decide if actions are good or bad. But another criterion (among many others) is intent. Did Grace mean to poison her friend or not? In the situation 3, Grace meant to poison her friend, so if you were to judge morality on intent, it would be forbidden. But the friend lived, so if you judge morality on outcome, it would be permissible. What the authors suggest is that disrupting the right temporoparietal junction reduces how much one cares about intent. Which is different than “reduces one’s morality”.

Of course, like any good study, other interpretations cannot be ruled out. For example, TMS may interfere with other cognitive functions that have nothing to do with morality. Overall, the finding is interesting, but as always, more work needs to be done to get a better grasp of the inner workings of our morality.

A post from Julie Robillard, aka Scientific Chick.


4 thoughts on “Magnets make morals moot?

  1. Might I suggest that in TMS brain studies we are witnessing a shrinking of the database of human experience?

    No analysis of the brain can yield information about experiences or emotions, of course. Brain tissue does not flag up our values or experiences. To put it another way, the relationship between a technically described brain and mind or experience isn’t physically, causally reciprocal; where there is no reciprocal relationship epistemology is static. Brain scientists may grudgingly admit that they must work on both sides of this unbridgeable epistemological vacuum (spanning the technical/experiential camps) but there is a disturbing lack of critical intuition among the public who are only too ready to defer to the idea that brain science contributes to knowledge of our experiential selves. The vague ontological status of “the brain” promotes this public view. The brain is neither physical nor mental but a metaphysical oxymoron, a hybrid object created from the supposed causal relationship between mind and matter.

    Accordingly, the evolutionary development of brain-based psychologies is necessarilly split. While the technical arm may advance beyond our dreams, the experiential arm evolves independently. But what is important here is that it is the experiential arm that informs the technical arm, not vice versa. The experiential arm brings us knowledge of ourselves and guides the whole construction of the technical map of the brain. The experiential arm is itself limited by cultural values, expectation and taboos, whether these are medically sourced or social. It is the experiential arm which limits our vision of the range of human experience.

    It follows, then, that technically advanced brain studies like TMS modelling could promote a shrunken data-base of the human psyche, when such studies are grounded on (and hence promote) culturally idiosyncratic, taboo-driven or limited analyses of emotions and the value we place on them. For example, the areas of the brain that are associated with, or mapped to (and not “related to”) experience can only be obtained through culturally filtered reports of our experience. Culturally-contingent associations may disappear altogether with changes in the cultural milieu. And we cannot appeal to physical, brain data to ground our cultural experiential knowledge, as this physical data itself is only assembled from culturally biased reports of our experience. There is no physical data that will show us whether “anger” ought to be examined as “assertion”, “losing control”, pathology, etc.

    An epistemologically split TMS modelling, like all brain-based experiential models, mirrors, and does not contribute to, knowledge of ourselves. It’s strength (or weakness) is that it provides tools that can forcibly change our experience; but even then such changes are also cast in the manifesting framework of local cultural values. Epistemological circularity is evident in studies such as these.

    The medical model that TMS works to models experience on the model of pain. Thus, like pain, experience is given as is, and can be taken away without harmful consequence. TMS modelling is being used to mirror and promote a pathological/normal, pain-modelled, two-dimensional picture of mind and experience. The TMS database neglects the database of human experience by regarding the individual as experientially fragmented, operating without the guidance of any deep, integrative principles or drivers. Such drivers could include archetypal themes, death/rebirth experiential templates, etc. (see Stan Grof’s description of perinatal matrices). Where some of these drivers and themes are noticed they are often, arbitrarily, regarded as pathology, which again models (and limits) experience on the model of pain.

    The failure to acknowledge and work at the cultural values that directly limit our vision of what it is to be human likewise informs any physical-technical study engineered in respect of it, no matter how far advanced such studies may be developed. These experiments seem to brush aside any possibility of there being emotional deep-structure and any consequences associated with casually, physically tampering with it. This creates a culture of epistemological neglect. It also promotes current cultural and medical bias. The idea that brain studies can do more than just mirror our culturally driven perspective on what it is to be human, is dangerous, and ought to be a source of great concern to us all.

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