According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has been getting quite a bit of coverage, researchers at MIT have investigated the human brain’s reliance on the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) in making moral judgments about other’s actions.
The MIT researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate the RTPJ of partipicants before and during the process of making a moral judgment on character's actions. The MIT News Office reports:
In one experiment, volunteers were exposed to TMS for 25 minutes before taking a test in which they read a series of scenarios and made moral judgments of characters’ actions on a scale of one (absolutely forbidden) to seven (absolutely permissible).
In a second experiment, TMS was applied in 500-milisecond bursts at the moment when the subject was asked to make a moral judgment. For example, subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely.
The researchers found that, with the application of TMS, participants relied less on their inferences from the character's beliefs and intentions (or mental states). In particular, when considering situations in which a character attempts to harm, but does not succeed, researchers found that the study participants considered the attempted harms to be "less morally forbidden" than when TMS was applied to a controlled site in the brain.
A new contributor to Scope, Stesha Doku is a second-year Stanford medical student writing about international health, medical technology and education. She is currently doing public health research in Sydney, Australia.