An area of the brain just above and behind the right ear appears to control morality, says researches at MIT. How do they know this? MIT conducted a study on volunteers’ abilities to distinguish between right and wrong by applying magnetic pulses to this area of the brain, blocking cell activity. Astonishingly, he magnetic pulses impaired the moral functions in volunteers’ brains.
This area of the brain is a “knot of nerve cells” called the right temporo-parietal junction, or RTPJ. 20 volunteers were in experiments that tested their ideas of right and wrong. One of these experiments included asking participants how acceptable it is for a man to knowingly let his girlfriend cross an unstable bridge. A 500 millisecond magnetic pulse to the top of the head confused viewers into judging moral decisions based on the outcome, or hindsight, as opposed to considering outcomes beforehand through an understanding of other people’s intentions. If the girlfriend safely crossed the bridge, volunteers saw her boyfriend as having done nothing wrong. Past studies of the RTPJ show the area to be very active when people try to place themselves in another’s shoes.
This is very interesting in that it just goes to show how vital our brains are to our survival and proper functioning in society. Life around us is just a jumble of objects and interactions in space, and our brain is the lens that shapes our perspectives and allows us to form understandings of these complex systems. More than anything else I find this study to be a bit frightening, as it shows how fragile our brains really are. I’m personally interested in how this study relates and can possibly contribute to the study of mental disorders, in particular sociopathy and other disorders that affect morality and empathy. How closely related are the two? If you were to conduct this study on sociopaths, what would the end result be?
The small Massachusetts Institute of Technology study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”