Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Moral Circuits were Offline?!

"Magnets Can Manipulate Morality"
Discovery News (March 29, 2010)

"Magnetic fields targeting the moral center of the brain could scramble our sense of right and wrong."

"Magnets can alter a person's sense of morality, according to a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Using a powerful magnetic field, scientists from MIT, Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are able to scramble the moral center of the brain, making it more difficult for people to separate innocent intentions from harmful outcomes. The research could have big implications for not only neuroscientists, but also for judges and juries.

" 'It's one thing to "know" that we'll find morality in the brain,' said Liane Young, a scientist at MIT and co-author of the article. 'It's another to "knock out" that brain area and change people's moral judgments.'..."

With that introduction, I didn't know what to expect from the article. Back when I was growing up, there were some - remarkable - claims going around about science disproving 'all that religious nonsense.' In another blog, I wasn't exaggerating all that much when I 'proved' that because the moon has no air, God doesn't exist. (A Catholic Citizen in America (March 20, 2009)) I suppose I need to say this: That's nonsense.

Quite a bit further into the article, I found out what the new research really was about:

"...[MIT scientist Liane] Young and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to locate an area of the brain known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) which other studies had previously related to moral judgments. While muscle movement, language and even memory are found in the same place in each individual, the RTPJ, located behind and above the ear, resides in a slightly different location in each person...."

Okay: they're studying the effect of magnetic fields on the right temporo-parietal junction. The Discovery News article says that's where we handle "moral judgments". Still sounds a bit like the materialist doctrine I learned, back in the day.

Back to the article:

"...For their experiment, the scientists had 20 subjects read several dozen different stories about people with good or bad intentions that resulted in a variety of outcomes.

"One typical story was about a boyfriend who leads his girlfriend across a bridge. In some versions, the boyfriend harmlessly walked his girlfriend across the bridge with no ill effect. In other cases, the boyfriend intentionally led the girlfriend along so she would break her ankle. The subjects used a seven point scale -- one being forbidden and seven completely permissible -- to record whether they through the situation was morally acceptable or not...."

Now we're getting somewhere: details.

"...While the subjects read the story, the scientists applied a magnetic field using a method known as transcranial magnetic stimulation. The magnetic fields created confusion in the neurons that make up the RTPJ, said Young, causing them to fire off electrical pulses chaotically.

"The confusion in the brain made it harder for subjects to interpret the boyfriend's intent, said Young, and instead made the subjects focus solely on the situation's outcome. The effect was temporary and safe...."

Well, "temporary and safe" as far as they know. But that's a quibble. I hope.

I'm rather impressed by these researchers, for their recognition that intent is involved in moral choice - not just the outcome. The outcome is important, too - but that's a topic for another post, in another blog.

Where was I? Scientists scrambling people's brains with magnets, but don't worry: it's okay. Right.

Back to the article. Again.

"...When no magnetic field was applied, the subjects focused more on the boyfriend's good intentions, rather than a bad outcome. When a magnetic field was applied to the RTPJ, the subjects consistently focused on a bad outcome, rather than the intention, and rated the story as more morally objectionable.

"The scientists didn't permanently remove the subjects moral sensibilities. On the scientists' seven point scale, the difference was about one point and averaged out to about a 15 percent change. It's not much, said Young, 'but it's still striking to see such a change in such high level behavior as moral decision-making.' Young also points out that the study was correlation; their work only links the the RTJP, morality and magnetic fields, but doesn't definitively prove that one causes another...."
[emphasis mine]

Notice that it's the Discovery News reporter who wrote "their work only links the the RTJP, morality and magnetic fields, but doesn't definitively prove that one causes another." Not the scientists.

I've noticed that even 'science' reporters tend to be a little clueless when it comes to science and what facts mean. Either that, or their editors are.

Anyway, I thought this was fascinating research - and the article was detailed enough to let us figure out what was happening, not just what a reporter and/or editor felt it ought to mean.

Meddling With Things That Man Was Not Meant to Know?

I'm a devout Catholic - so why aren't I ranting about this? Because I'm a devout Catholic: and I found out what the score on Catholicism was before I converted.

My faith doesn't require me to shut down my frontal lobes and just concentrate on feeling real spiritual. We come equipped with brains - and if God didn't expect us to use them and our curiosity, He's even more clueless that some reporters.

I don't buy that.

We've been learning a great deal about how the brain works in the last few decades - quite a lot in just the last few years. It's exciting, and sometimes more than a little scary. You think you've heard wild stories about chips secretly implanted by Them? Wait until neural interfaces hit the market in 10 years or so. (December 2, 2009)

I'm pretty sure that what we're discovering will be misused. People do that. I also am also pretty sure that, overall, the benefits will far outweigh problems we learn how to deal with.

Blindly optimistic? I don't think so. We learned how to use fire and electricity without killing ourselves off: I think we'll manage this, too.

Not-entirely-unrelated posts:

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