This piece of news has really got me (and a whole lot of other people) thinking:
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.
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.
The study offers “striking evidence” that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” she says. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”
The full paper has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be downloaded here.
The link between the human mind and brain is a complex and controversial issue that has dominated the science and religion dialogue for a long time. Groundbreaking studies like these are showing how closely linked the mental and physical aspects of our mind/brain are. For theology, such findings warn us against simplistic dichotomies between the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the human individual. Our soul/spirit, whatever that may be, can never be clearly defined apart from our physical bodies, as Greek philosophers like Plato theorized.
What does this mean for human laws? Can one then escape punishment for crimes such as murder by pointing out that the moral judgments of the accused have been affected by damage to the right TPJ of the brain? And what other consequences will this have in the study of ethics and morality in religion?
But to most of us it is news – and alarming news – that morality-related brain functions can be disrupted or suspended with a simple electromagnetic coil. If ever a piece of research were destined to incite paranoid fantasies about dictators inserting chips in our heads to alter and control our behaviour, this is it. ~ Philip Ball, at the Nature blog