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Good or Evil?

March 31, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds Blog Brit Trogen

We humans pride ourselves on the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Should I push the blind man into oncoming traffic? Should I steal the lollypop from the small, helpless child? Should I smother my annoying friend with a pillow?

Overall, we tend to know what the morally superior option is without giving it a second thought. And when it comes to judging the choices of others, humans rarely hold back. But neuroscientists at MIT are putting our concept of morality in question. And it all comes down to a brain region called the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ).

The TPJ is essential for something we refer to as “theory of mind.” Ultimately, when judging someone else’s actions as either moral or immoral, we need to first imagine what they were thinking at the time. If the person who stole the lollipop from the child actually thought it was poisoned, the action suddenly takes on a new moral light. The TJP is the part of the brain that’s activated when we think about other people’s intentions and beliefs.

This study led by Rebecca Saxe and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, applying a magnetic field to the scalp to disrupt the activity of the TJP. The researchers found that by disrupting this brain region, the test subjects’ ability to make moral judgments was impaired. In particular, individuals who intended to do harm but failed to do so were judged to be morally sound (as in: “No, there’s nothing wrong with pushing someone on the train tracks if the train stops in time.”)

This is only the first in a series of planned studies. But if something as simple as a magnet can disrupt our moral judgment, maybe right and wrong isn’t quite as black and white as we thought.

So… children with lollypops: beware. 

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