According to newly published research, simple magnets have the ability to affect people’s sense of right and wrong.
As reported in the March 29 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard, MIT and other researchers took 20 people, applied magnetic pulses to their right temporoparietal junction — a region just behind the right ear — and then asked them questions about several hypothetical scenarios. The idea was to determine whether the magnets would have an effect on their moral judgments.
In one, participants read about a man leading his girlfriend across a bridge. In some versions, he lets her cross the bridge even though he believes the bridge is unsteady and old. In others, he lets her cross because he believes the bridge looks safe. When the magnetic pulse was applied, it became difficult for the subjects to judge the boyfriend’s actions based on his intent. Instead, they focused on the outcome, whether or not she crossed safely.
As a story about the experiment on MSNBC.com pointed out, the scientists didn’t permanently alter the subjects’ moral sensibilities, and the difference in their moral sensibilities was not that large. But MIT researcher Liane Young said, “It’s still striking to see such a change in such high-level behavior as moral decision-making.”
While the results are interesting, it’s an impossible leap to say that just because morality has a mechanical component means humans don’t have a soul. Nevertheless, that was the conclusion, in the paraphrased words of a Harvard psychologist, of National Public Radio’s report on the study.
In some ways, though, we’ve long known of the impact on moral judgment of biological processes. How about the effect of overindulging in alcohol?