Study: Magnetic Waves Alter Moral Compass

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A device that emits an invisible beam affecting a person's ability to tell right from wrong might sound like the kind of weapon a comic book villain would use to wreak havoc around the world.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say such a device allowed them to observe the effects magnetic rays have on a person's sense of morality.

In a new study, volunteers were subjected to magnetic pulses just above and behind of the right ear, focusing on the area of the brain believed to be the area controlling morality. The pulses were intended to block cell activity that contributed to the volunteers' sense of right and wrong.

MIT's researchers explain the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior," Dr. Liane Young, the study's lead researcher, told the British Broadcasting Corporation. "To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgments is really astonishing."

To see what effect a 500 millisecond magnetic pulse had, researchers gave the 20 volunteers a series of tests. In one test, the volunteers were given an ethical dilemma: should a man let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knew wasn't safe?

The volunteers based their answers on how the scenario played out. If the girlfriend crossed with bridge safely, the man wasn't at fault. The volunteers based their decision on the outcome of the dilemma, not the moral principle, because of the magnetic pulse, the researchers wrote.

In another test, volunteers were exposed to 25 minutes of weak electric currents that prevent brain cells from functioning normally. They then had to read stories about morally questionable characters and judge whether the characters' actions caused harm. Researchers found that the volunteers accepted morally dubious actions that resulted in a "happy" ending.
  • Alex Sundby

    Alex Sundby is an associate news editor for CBSNews.com

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