I know this has done the rounds, but it’s worth looking at if you haven’t already. I often refer back to similar experiments which have show that TMS can alter moral judgements, as this BBC article shows:
Scientists have shown they can change people’s moral judgements by disrupting a specific area of the brain with magnetic pulses.
They identified a region of the brain just above and behind the right ear which appears to control morality.
And by using magnetic pulses to block cell activity they impaired volunteers’ notion of right and wrong.
The small Massachusetts Institute of Technology study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishingDr Liane Young
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Lead researcher Dr Liane Young said: “You think of morality as being a really high-level behaviour.
“To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”
The key area of the brain is a knot of nerve cells known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ).
The researchers subjected 20 volunteers to a number of tests designed to assess their notions of right and wrong.
In one scenario participants were asked how acceptable it was for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knew to be unsafe.
After receiving a 500 millisecond magnetic pulse to the scalp, the volunteers delivered verdicts based on outcome rather than moral principle.
If the girlfriend made it across the bridge safely, her boyfriend was not seen as having done anything wrong.
In effect, they were unable to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions.
Previous work has shown the RTPJ to be highly active when people think about the thoughts and beliefs of others.
The MIT team pinpointed the region in volunteers using a sophisticated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan.
They then targeted the area using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to create weak electric currents that temporarily stop brain cells working normally.
In one test, volunteers were exposed to TMS for 25 minutes before reading stories involving morally questionable characters, and being asked to judge their actions.
In a second experiment, volunteers were subjected to a much shorter 500 millisecond TMS burst while being asked to make a moral judgement.
In both cases, the researchers found that when the RTPJ was disrupted volunteers were more likely to judge actions solely on the basis of whether they caused harm – not whether they were morally wrong in themselves.
Morally dubious acts with a “happy” ending were often deemed acceptable.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a brain expert at University College London, said the findings were insightful.
“The study suggests that this region – the RTPJ – is necessary for moral reasoning.
“What is interesting is that this is a region that is very late developing – into adolescence and beyond right into the 20s.
“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”
Now scientists are applying the same sort of methodology to religious belief. As the Telegraph reports:
Scientists from the University of York have found a way of performing mind control
By directing magnetic force towards the posterior medial frontal cortex of the brain, they were able to reduce belief in God and decrease intolerance towards immigrants.
This part of the brain is located near the surface, roughly a few inches up from the forehead, and is associated with detecting and solving problems.
In the study, half the participants were given a low-level amount of energy that would have not affected their brains, and the other half received enough magnetic energy to lower activity in that area of the brain.
The scientists from the University of York and a team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that people whose targeted brain region was temporarily shut down reported 32.8 per cent less belief in God, angels, or heaven.
They were also 28.5 per cent more positive in their feelings towards an immigrant who criticised their country.
Dr Keise Izuma, from the University Of York’s Department of Psychology, said: “People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems.
“We wanted to find out whether a brain region that is linked with solving concrete problems, like deciding how to move one’s body to overcome an obstacle, is also involved in solving abstract problems addressed by ideology.”
The team wanted to find out whether religious ideology and anti-immigrant sentiment were used as a trigger response to problems, such as the worry of death and threats to the country.
Dr Izuma added: “We decided to remind people of death because previous research has shown that people turn to religion for comfort in the face of death.
“As expected, we found that when we experimentally turned down the posterior medial frontal cortex, people were less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas despite having been reminded of death.”
The lead author of the paper, Dr Colin Holbrook, from UCLA, expanded on this. He said: “These findings are very striking, and consistent with the idea that brain mechanisms that evolved for relatively basic threat-response functions are repurposed to also produce ideological reactions.
“However, more research is needed to understand exactly how and why religious beliefs and ethnocentric attitudes were reduced in this experiment.”
The report appears in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.