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.

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Advances in using TMS to achieve cognitive enhancement

tmsRemembering things involves, at a minimum, encoding – in which the information about an event is translated into the yet-to-be-defined neural code, and consolidation – in which the encoded information is integrated with other related information and stored in long-term memory.  Encoding occurs while we are awake while consolidation, or at least much of it, occurs while we are asleep.  Previous studies have shown that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), when applied in early sleep in such a way that specific slow-frequency oscillation ensued, enhanced memory consolidation.  In a new paper in PNAS,  Kirov et al. show that the same thing can be done during waking to enhance memory encoding by using what they call transcranial slow oscillation stimulation (tSOS).  The key observation is summarized in this line from the abstract:

During wake, tSOS did not enhance consolidation of memories when applied after learning, but im- proved encoding of hippocampus-dependent memories when applied during learning.

While the safety of TMS remains an issue, these data represent the first time that a seemingly innocuous stimulus applied to the brain can enhance active learning – seemingly a technological solution to the long elusive objective of cognitive enhancement.  Both the method and results still seem a bit crude to me, but given advances in other areas of engineering, strategies such as this seem destined to be rapidly miniaturized, improved and otherwise made amenable to commercialization.   Might the day be looming when students slip a ‘learning beanie’ over their heads as they prepare for their organic chemistry exam?  Stranger things have happened.

A more salient point to those of us interested in the neuroethics of cognitive enhancement reflects upon a distinction made by Helga Nowotny in her book Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future.  In this thoughtful tome, a distinction is made between exotechnologies (those which reside outside of our bodies) and endotechnologies (those which reside inside of our bodies).  Nowotny argues that we are more resistant to endotechnologies (i.e. pharmaceuticals) because of the sense that they invade our bodies more than technologies applied from the outside.  I would argue that irrespective of the location of the technology (pharmaceuticals, TMS, or for that matter, reading this post), if our brains are changed then something within us has been altered.  But the important question is not what a neuroessentialist such as myself thinks, but rather how the general public views such advances.  Time will tell.