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A Center of Gravity
Controlling a brain's “morality center”

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
March 30, 2010

The headline was arresting: “Scientists discover how to ‘turn off’ brain’s morality center”. Uncounted thousands of people saw that headline, and I would guess most of them, quickly or eventually, asked the inevitable corollary: Have they figured out how to turn the 'morality center' ON?

Well, let's get back to that one. Here's a recap. Brain scans had revealed that a small section of the brain called the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) was at its highest level of activity when people were considering the consequences of an act. This got some public notice a couple of years ago when it was revealed that this activity was absent in children, and usually didn't fully develop in people until about the age of 25. I'm not sure if that provides much solace to exasperated parents all over the world who ask the universal questions, “What were you THINKING?” and “Didn't you think about what would happen?” of children and teenagers. Knowing that the kids didn't think it through because they didn't have the physical equipment to do so may, or may not make it easier to be a parent.

At MIT, scientists learned to control the amount of activity in the TPJ through low-level electric impulses delivered by electrodes. And by deliberately disrupting the TPJ activity in adults and then questioning them about specific matters, they discovered that not only did the TPJ give people cause to pause and consider their actions, but also to consider the rightness or wrongness of such actions. In other words, the morality of such actions.

People with the electrodes in place were asked to rate the morality of a woman who gives some coffee that she has reason to believe is poisoned, but in fact isn't. Is it moral to attempt to poison and friend, but fail? For most people, it's pretty clear that the effort to poison is, in itself, an immoral act, and the fact that the attempt was unsuccessful is irrelevant. If you rob a bank, don't expect to avoid prison just because the cops showed up and stopped you.

With the electrodes engaged, that stopped being a fairly clear choice for the subjects. Most either deemed it not immoral to unsuccessfully poison someone, or didn't have an opinion on the matter.

The revelation isn't that profound. For millennia, we've debated whether such things as morality, religiosity, ethics, and other behaviors were based in physiological origins or spiritual. While most of us didn't view humanity as purely spiritual beings whose bodies only provided a distraction from our divine essences, we similarly didn't embrace the Kurt Vonnegut view that we were all just meat marionettes, ordered about by the chemical reactions in our bodies. (Vonnegut, to his credit and readability, was amused by this concept).

Unfortunately for our self-esteem, Vonnegut was probably much closer in describing the reality of the situation than the “fallen angel” theory. We possess volition (as does all life—indeed, volition could be said to define life), with enough variation in it that we react in seemingly individual ways, and we have will (which I define as self-aware volition), but we don't exactly possess free will. The universe, and our role in it, may be chaotic, but our responses to that role are prepatterned. To that end, we impose order on our universe, and attempt to control it in our various ways. It's a good evolutionary path for self-aware beings, or we would probably all just sit in puddles of our own urine and not bother to mow the lawn on the weekend.

That morality and religiosity might be governed by physiological forces is something of an emotional third rail for most people. They don't like the idea that “God” might actually be nothing more than a few micrograms of dopamine released whenever the brain feels a need to cope with an uncooperative universe. Or that morality boils down to a few microwatts behind the right ear.

For quite a few people, the mere fact that the experiment, and its results, exists at all is disturbing.

So: if a sense of morality can be turned off, does this hold the promise that it could be turned ON in people whose sense of morality is absent? Leaving Antony Burgess' “A Clockwork Orange” aside for the moment, would this usher in a brave new world of moral rectitude?

Short answer: no.

The problem with morality is that it, like religiosity, humor, social mores and recreation, is a human predilection, and as such, is utterly subjective, and controlled in large measure by the society an individual is in, and his or her ability to adapt and coexist with that society. Humor is entirely social in nature, and a joke that will leave an American convulsed with laughter will leave an Englishman cold, even if there aren't problems with the cultural referents. ALL cultures have humor. They all vary, both by culture and by individual response. The jokes are different, and even the responses. Where an American might have a belly laugh, a Japanese will react with a polite smile, and a Finn by grinning and cutting his throat. Religion is largely a social function, and a lot of social mores get sucked into that. Even religions that tend to be strictive and authoritarian find that cultural variations cover the entire gamet. Islam as practiced as a social force in Saudi Arabia is far different from Islam as a social force in Chechnya, even though the “church language” (Arabic) and the teachings are identical. Catholicism similarly varies by huge amounts from the Caribbean to central Africa to Italy, much to the consternation of the Vatican.

Morality is subjective, situational, and both cultural and individual, just as all the other human proclivities are. In some cultures, it's considered moral to kill your 14 year old daughter if she is found having sex with a man not her husband. It wasn't all that long ago that it would sometimes happen in the US. In the US, some people consider it immoral to have sex before marriage, and some consider it immoral to forbid it.

There's no such thing as absolute morality, despite what some bible bangers claim. Indeed, the bible is an excellent example of just how flexible morality – even in gods – can be.

There's also the fact that amoral people only cause a relatively small fraction of the world's problems. Ninety percent of human-caused woes stem, not from actual malevolence or amorality, but simple stupidity and ignorance. And unfortunately, many people are stupid, and we are ALL ignorant.

Think about the people living on your street. Chances are you have one guy who pops off every so often about benefits, real or imagined, that “illegal immigrants” get, and how these “illegals” should be stripped of all rights and benefits.

He's proposing nothing less than a resurrection of the Nuremberg Laws, in which Hitler excluded select portions of the population from the protection of the law, and made them fair game for any and all types of abuse, with predictably horrific results.

But your neighbor isn't Hitler, not even close. He hasn't thought it through, obviously. Further, he is incensed that people are getting privileges he can't enjoy because they broke the law. Never mind that most, if not all of that belief is false: he believes it, and he holds a belief similar to Hitler's, not out of evil, but because of a sense of moral outrage.

Collective morality usually does as much harm as good. Societies, by their nature, try to impose a “one size fits all” morality. The American government was revolutionary, not because of Democracy, which had been around for 1,500 year, but by the earnest effort to divorce government from the false moral certainties of religion. The effort largely failed, and America is full of people who believe the best way to instill social order is by inflicting shame on people—usually for things where there is no legitimate reason for shame to be felt.

Another problem: is it moral to make people “be moral”? I can remember as a kid reading comic books in which the hero would have some sort of ray gun that he could use on villains to make them “good, productive citizens”. Once zapped, the erstwhile criminals would wander around in a gentle haze, wearing the same sort of unearthly grin that “Bob” has in those “natural male enhancement” ads. Except with Bob, you can assume he's actually having fun. Long before I read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”, I found myself severely creeped out by those types of stories. Any parent of a young child would be thrilled to figure out a way to get kids to take responsibility, and see consequences to their actions. But suppose it destroys something vital in childhood—imagination, or emotional growth? Do we REALLY want Stepford Teens?

I understand, and strongly support, the types of experiments they are doing at MIT. I do believe the more we understand how our minds work, the better the odds that we'll avoid destroying ourselves. But when I consider the nature of morality, and the horrific results that could come, either from turning morality off (think utter unfeeling brutes for soldiers, as if there aren't plenty enough already), or from turning it ON, I find the whole thing more than a little spooky.

http://rawstory.com/rs/2010/0329/scientists-discover-turn-off-brains- morality-center/

Scientists discover how to ‘turn off’ brain’s morality center

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 29th, 2010 -- 9:38 pm

People's moral judgment can be altered by disrupting part of the brain, a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) disrupted activity in the right temporo-parietal junction, or TPJ, which is above and behind the right ear and is usually highly active when we think about what we believe the outcome of a particular act will be.

The researchers disrupted the TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp and got study participants to read a series of scenarios posing moral conundrums.

In one scenario, a person called Grace and her friend are taking a tour of a chemical plant when Grace stops at the coffee machine.

Grace's friend asks her to get her a coffee with sugar.
Story continues below...

A container by the coffee machine is marked 'toxic' but contains plain old sugar -- but Grace doesn't know that.

She believes the white powder in the container is toxic but puts it in her friend's coffee anyway. Her friend is unharmed because the substance was sugar.

Participants in the study were asked to judge on a scale of one to seven, with one being "absolutely forbidden" and seven "absolutely permissible," if they thought what Grace and other protagonists in other scenarios did was morally acceptable.

Two experiments were conducted: during one, participants were asked to judge the scenarios' characters after having magnetic pulses sent to their TPJs for 25 minutes, and in the other they passed judgment while undergoing very short bursts of magnetic interference.

In both experiments, disrupting normal neural activity in the right TPJ switched off the part of people's moral judgment mechanism that looks at the protagonists' beliefs.

When the right TPJ was disrupted, participants were more likely to judge as morally permissible failed attempts to harm another person than were control participants whose right TPJs were not tinkered with.

"When activity in the right TPJ is disrupted, participants' moral judgments shift toward a 'no harm, no foul' mentality," even though the participants should have given characters like Grace a mark in the forbidden range because they believed their actions would cause harm, the study says.

Posted: April 1, 2010

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