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Inside your brain there is a little area that deals with thinking about how other people think. It's a highly specialised area of the brain and the only area that deals with this particular issue. It is also not used for solving any other types of logical problems.
This specialised region is called the Right Temporal Parietal Junction and is located just above and behind your right ear. This particular function performed by the brain seems to be exclusively human. And it doesn't function from day one but takes many years to develop this unique skill.
Experiments with children have illustrated that this ability seems to begin developing around 3 to 5 years old. There is the Smarties, pencils and child experiment (Smarties are sweets like M&Ms in a tube) where the child is surprised to find pencils inside the Smartie tube and when the lid is replaced and the child's parent is invited into the room the child, at age 3, will expect the parent to think there are pencils in the tube. This is because there are pencils in the tube and the child isn't able to think of what someone else might think. By the age of 5 a child will predict that the parent will think there are Smarties in the tube and be surprised to find pencils.
This ability to simulate someone else's mind inside your own brain seems to continue developing in sophistication certainly through adolescence. At an early age children will make a moral judgement that someone is wrong to do something naughty but it makes no difference if that person was mistaken. They are still blameable. By the age of 7 children can realise that someone thought they were doing something okay but were mistaken and so are not so blameable.
Rebecca Saxe is a neuroscientist who studies this particular subject. She has done some remarkable experiments illustrating the relationship between the Right Temporal Parietal Junction (RTPJ) and people's moral judgements. In a particular experiment subjects are given a scenario and asked to judge a persons actions. The scenario is that Grace and her friend are on a tour of a chemical factory and they take a break for coffee. Grace's friend asks for some sugar in her coffee and Grace goes to the coffee machine where she finds a pot containing a white powder which is sugar but the pot is labelled "Deadly Poison".
In the case where the substance is really sugar but is labelled poison and Grace puts it in her friends coffee, people judge her to be very blameable if she thought it was poison. But if she thought it was sugar people judge her to be nearly blameless. In a case where the pot is marked sugar but in fact contains poison people judge Grace to be more blameable if she thinks it is sugar and gives it to her friend who consequently dies than when it was labelled poison but in fact contained sugar. That is interesting enough but the plot thickens. In the two cases, one where Grace thought it was poison and it was sugar and the second and opposite case where she thought it was sugar but it was actually poison, people judged Grace as very guilty in the first case and only slightly guilty in the second. Now the experiment was repeated but with the aid of a transcranial magnetic stimulator.
The idea was to disrupt the function of the RTPJ and to see if this had any affect on people's moral judgement of Grace. Many impressive experiments have been done recently with transcranial magnetic stimulation. (You can find out more interesting things about magnets at Zyra's magnet page) The magnetic field is focused on a particular region of the brain, in this case the RTPJ, and the consequences measured. It turns out that when the function of the RTPJ is disrupted people's judgements are moderated. They think she is less blameable when she thought it was poison but in fact it was not. So by disrupting the moral judgement area of the brain people are less inclined to view Grace as very blameable. However, in the case where she thought it was sugar but in fact it killed her friend they now think she is more blameable than they did with a normally functioning RTPJ. Overall they still thought she was more blameable when she thought it was poison but the extremities of their judgement were moderated.
The summary of all this is that the ability for humans to think about other people's motives is both unique and delicate. By disrupting the brain with a fluctuating magnetic field people can be seen to have different moral judgements. The implications are fascinating. I wonder if the CIA or MI5 are doing their own experiments with magnets and people's thinking.
If you are interested in magnetic therapy you might want to take a look at the Magnetic Therapy site where there are many interesting articles and hundreds of magnetic products from magnetic bracelets to magnetic pillows and magnetic dog collars to magnetic jewellery. There are also books on magnetic therapy and magnetic healing.
There seem to be more articles appearing on this subject now and here are a list of links I have found so far...
On the Discovery News web site there is an article titled MAGNETS CAN MANIPULATE MORALITY - Magnetic fields targeting the moral center of the brain could scramble our sense of right and wrong.
An article entitled Magnetic Stimulation Alters Sense of Morality was posted by Barry Thompson MD, MA who is a Mental health counselor (is that how the Americans spell it?) and neurologist on the Seattle pi web site.
Posted on the Vault (with a blog where the comments don't work and they don't say who wrote the article either) is a bit headed Magnetic Morality Manipulation: CSR's Latest Threat?
Matt has posted something on the same subject titled Magnetic Morality on his mattwisdom blog.
There's also a bit on the BBC news site called Magnets 'can modify our morality'
Also there is a mention on the Talk Rational forum at http://talkrational.org/
And even on the CBS news site there is an article called Magnetic Waves Alter Moral Compass
|See also: • Magnetic Therapy • Educating Children • Looking after your body|