March 30, 2010
Magnetic Field Behind Right Ear Alters Moral Judgments

My magnet made me do it.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. MIT neuroscientists have shown they can influence people's moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

To make moral judgments about other people, we often need to infer their intentions an ability known as "theory of mind." For example, if a hunter shoots his friend while on a hunting trip, we need to know what the hunter was thinking: Was he secretly jealous, or did he mistake his friend for a duck?

Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people's intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects' ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people's intentions for example, a failed murder attempt was impaired.

Feeling all morally indignant and judgmental? Is this moral indignation wearing you out with stress and strain? Perhaps a magnet is what you need to escape from the burdens of strong feelings of morality.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in 500 msec bursts is enough to alter moral judgments.

In one experiment, volunteers were exposed to TMS for 25 minutes before taking a test in which they read a series of scenarios and made moral judgments of characters' actions on a scale of 1 (absolutely forbidden) to 7 (absolutely permissible).

In a second experiment, TMS was applied in 500-milisecond bursts at the moment when the subject was asked to make a moral judgment. For example, subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for someone to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely. In such cases, a judgment based solely on the outcome would hold the perpetrator morally blameless, even though it appears he intended to do harm.

In both experiments, the researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible. Therefore, the researchers believe that TMS interfered with subjects' ability to interpret others' intentions, forcing them to rely more on outcome information to make their judgments.

Could interrogators use TMS to convince, say, a captured spy that it's okay to divulge state secrets? Might nations or rogue corporations kidnap engineers and scientists and use TMS to convince them that they are morally wrong to try to hold back commercial secrets or military secrets?

Do you want to alter your own moral judgment or someone else's? If so, over what issue or behavior?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 30 12:37 AM  Brain Ethics Law

Mthson said at March 30, 2010 2:02 AM:

BTW, have you seen this article? "Ken Hayworth wants the right to chemically store his brain so he can be uploaded into a computer. And he wants the same for you."

They seem to be associating this with immortality, which seems strange, because simply uploading your brain would merely be a duplicate of you, and you (your "consciousness") still dies and fades into nothingness.

Why would I care about a duplicate? Knowing a duplicate of your intelligence will someday be active seems like a pretty poor consolation prize as you head to the grave.

chris365 said at March 30, 2010 5:38 AM:

In other news, scientists confirmed in a study that if you shouted really loudly into someone's ear their brain was overloaded and more often than not they answered math problems incorrectly.

Does anyone dispute that if you do weird things to a person's brain you can influence the outcome?

Did they test the effect of the following as well with their questions:
playing disturbingly loud music while asking it the question
hitting them on the head with a frying pain before asking the question

Yes, this is more nuanced than that, but unless they considered other forms of interference in a variety of ways they can't really say much other than, "If we distract someone while or before asking a question, their answer changes." Yep, that sounds about right.

Lono said at March 30, 2010 7:46 AM:


Yup - I was thinking the same thing - seems hard to picture a practical use of such a thing rather than simple distraction - which can be accomplished more easily through other methods.

(being able to temporarily effectively disable a person's sense of morality would be an amazing tool for interrogators)


I think the dilemna of duplicates is something that all sufficently advanced civilizations must eventually face.

Personally, being a co-operative empathetic being, with strong opinions, I would like to have up to around 1 Billion copies of myself on this planet alone. So clearly I am on the oposite end of your argument as I have no particular Emotional Ego about any specific instance of myself - although I would seek to attain the highest and longest possible survival rate for all instances.

(I suppose my attitude on that could change after a couple of million years however - and during that time I would likely make so many modifications to myself as to really be a different individual anyways)

I think it is safe to assume - like many sci fi authors have - that wars between clones of aliens have occured - including, but not limited to, civil wars between groups of phenotypically identical clones.

I do not think that is neccesarily an inescapable consequence of duplication - though such a technology carries this very real danger.

I do not intend to freeze myself to "bet" on such a process becoming available to me - however I will likely get my genome accurately transcribed so that it can be passed down to my heirs - and they can choose to duplicate my phenotype later if it is in their interest to do so.

(I may even leave a recording of myself with my heirs that would be essentially a brief autobiography that might be of interest for such a creation as well)

Mthson said at March 30, 2010 12:20 PM:


We already have clones in the form of identical twins, but having such a close ally doesn't seem to make their lives much different. I have a close relationship with two people who are identical twins, and they're not even very similar, even voting on opposite ends of the political spectrum, for example. They even own a business together, but they don't seem particularly interested in each other's well-being any more so than normal siblings. My sense is even identical twins / clones who have a strong sense of being team players, as you describe, tend to develop their own interests and paths.

Duplicating one's brain directly might avoid that problem, but for how long would that be advantageous before technology would allow for a single borg-mind with no use for individual mental constructs or physical bodies? Maybe closer to a few decades than a million years. Or maybe the two technologies will arrive at a close-enough date that there's never any utility in duplicating any individual intelligence's brain.

Also, wouldn't two sufficiently advanced intelligences make identical decisions if given the same information? There's only a single rationally-optimum answer to any given problem. If your army of duplicates and someone else's army of duplicates are both sufficiently intelligent, wouldn't they have identical values (information-processing tendencies), no sense of "emotional ego" identity, and all incentive to merge their identical intelligences?

Mthson said at March 30, 2010 12:29 PM:

Also, isn't 'the dilemma of duplicates' a lower priority than 'the dilemma of mortality'? If we wake up tomorrow with a surprise terminal disease (it can happen to anybody) and we could choose between curing our disease or duplicating our intelligence, wouldn't the former be preferred?

Lono said at March 30, 2010 12:54 PM:


You are priveleged to study such individuals in detail!

Your story is one that I have often heard re-told - and it still suprises me somewhat - however certainly the urge to distinguish oneself as an individual seems to cause a bit of a pathology almost identical twins in many of these cases.

I am quite confident such a situation would not have happened with any number of my twins - because I have a minority phenotype - and I am sure there ARE identical twins who are like myself and probably greatly benefit from the close association.

The fact is I would probably only make about three clones of myself using are current level of cloning - (once the developmental kinks are knowcked out) - raising them alongside my own offspring - but if complete duplication was possible - the more the merrier imho...

Also, while, yes, a hive mind is the logical evolution of any group of identical instances - I do not see that being available until long after physical duplication is possible.

(and of course I am somewhat irrationally opposed to true Hive mind cooperatives due to my own pathology)

bbartlog said at March 30, 2010 1:36 PM:

Could interrogators use TMS to convince, say, a captured spy that it's okay to divulge state secrets?

I'm quite sure that this is in the offing. Impairment of some part of the prefrontal lobe that governs executive function, or some variant of self-restraint, should allow for easy and painless interrogation. Not quite the same as convincing the spy it's OK, just a way of tranquillizing their ability to resist.

@chris - it is the specificity of the impairment that's interesting (though the study is poorly constructed if this is what they wanted to highlight). Obviously there are a lot of ways to make people's answers worse, but this is a targeted skewing.

Brett Bellmore said at March 30, 2010 5:30 PM:

"Does anyone dispute that if you do weird things to a person's brain you can influence the outcome?"

You've missed the point: It was a specific part of the brain they were doing weird things to. Suggests that some part of ethical judgment is localized.

The questions of identity and uploading were one of the perennial arguments among cryoncists, back when I could afford to be one. There are a whole range of uploading scenarios, ranging from gradual replacement of neurons, to models constructed by extrapolation from external behavior. The classic question is, where do you draw the line, if they're all producing outward behavior that's indistinguishable from the original?

ronbo said at March 31, 2010 11:28 AM:

Given the rise over the past decade in classically paranoid tropes in politics (from Bush invading Iraq over oil to Obama secretly being a communist), it would be interesting to see whether this area of the brain is implicated. Amateur's take on experiment design:

1. Recruit test cohort of adults who self-report as highly engaged politically (both left and right) and controls who report as moderately politically engaged and not at all politically engaged. Disqualify for organic or functional health issues that might affect results (e.g., lesions at or near the TPJ site, acute mental illness presenting with symptoms of paranoia or other disordered thinking). Control for demographics (gender, age, education, income)
2. Scan baseline activity at the TPJ site with no stimulus and with non-political, neutral stimuli.
3. Scan activity during and at varying times after exposure to stimuli with varying political valences (i.e., strongly aligned with subject's reported politics to strongly opposed).

No idea what, if anything, would come of it but you never know.

Vercingetorix said at March 31, 2010 11:38 AM:

Not to put too fine of a point to it, but *bragging* about how enlightened you are and how little your ego holds sway over your actions doesn't boost my confidence that the world would be better off with billions more of you. Nothing personal, Lono.

The world would probably be much worse with millions of any clone - we all know people we just instinctively dislike but who are strikingly similiar. I hate the nerd, you hate the know-it-all, Mthson hates the good-looking jock, etc, so on.

Competition would be brutal. There is a niche for everyone, but everyone cannot fill the same niche. If I like petit redheads, there better be alot of petit redheads in the world, otherwise, it could get bloody quickly.

But we're now off topic.

Doug Collins said at March 31, 2010 11:41 AM:

re: The duplicate question- Bertrand Russell once asked, "How do you know that you are the same person who went to sleep last night?"
As far as the matter of having a duplicate not being much of a comfort if you are headed to the grave; in a sense, you die each night when you lose consciousness as you go to sleep.

Tex Taylor said at March 31, 2010 11:50 AM:

I always thought any Leftist standing between the North and South Pole probably had some valid, physical excuse for their moral depravity.

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