A region of your brain just above and behind your right ear appears to control morality -- a bundle of nerve cells known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ).
When the researchers used magnetic pulses to block cell activity in that region, they impaired volunteers' notion of right and wrong.
BBC News reports:
"In one scenario participants were asked how acceptable it was for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knew to be unsafe. After receiving a 500-millisecond magnetic pulse to the scalp, the volunteers delivered verdicts based on outcome rather than moral principle. If the girlfriend made it across the bridge safely, her boyfriend was not seen as having done anything wrong."
Could a quick magnetic pulse to your brain suddenly alter your moral scruples, leaving you unable to identify the difference between right and wrong?
It turns out that this high-level thought process of moral reasoning, which is often equated with our very identities as human begins, appears to be entirely malleable.
When researchers administered even a super fast 500-millisecond magnetic pulse to the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) of the brain, it rendered participants unable to make moral judgments.
Instead, the volunteers judged actions on whether or not they resulted in harm, so situations that had positive outcomes were deemed acceptable even if they involved morally corrupt judgments.
Interestingly, this region of the brain does not fully develop until late adolescence and into your 20s, which suggests that your moral faculties are not fully developed until after your teenage years.
How Does Magnetic Stimulation Alter Your Brain?
The researchers used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which creates weak electric currents that stop brain cells from working normally on a temporary basis.
TMS has been around for about 20 years and is used in a relatively new field known as neuroengineering, which involves the use of engineering techniques to alter your brain.
TMS is approved to treat depression in Canada and Israel, and is available as a research procedure in the United States. It is typically used to treat depression but also has been used for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.
How does it work?
Your brain consists of about 100 billion neurons, which are able to communicate even though they are not physically connected. This communication happens across a tiny empty space called a synapse, and it is largely the patterns of formation and fading of these synapse connections that form your ability to learn and function.
There are anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses for each of your 100 billion neurons, to give you an idea of just how complex and amazing a communication system is currently at work in your brain.
If you are able to change the pattern of your brain's synapses, you can alter your very mind, and this is what neuroengineers attempt to do, often using artificial devices like TMS.
Your Brain Under the Control of Neuroengineering
Another type of neuroengineering is deep-brain stimulation, which has become a routine treatment for Parkinson's disease.
The procedure involves a thin electrode surgically implanted into your brain, stimulating neurons in areas affected by disease. Experiments on rats have found that this type of electrical stimulation of the brain seems to drive the production of new memories and new brain cells, and it's even being considered as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.
Scientists are also testing it as a way to treat a growing number of other disorders, including epilepsy, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But neuroengineering techniques like TMS are not only being considered for health conditions -- they're also being considered to provoke changes in mood, such as improving creativity or concentration.
Like a device from a science-fiction movie, neuroengineers are already envisioning "affordable, wearable units that could go into much wider use in regular therapy offices, or even at home" … units that you could use to stimulate your brain for a mood or confidence boost.
Is This Really a Good Idea?
Manipulating your brain cells with TMS or deep-brain stimulation is a foray into a world of the unknown.
The side effects of TMS have so far been mild, such as headache, lightheadedness or tingling in facial muscles, though in rare cases seizure, mania, and hearing problems have also been reported. With deep-brain stimulation, more serious risks have occurred, including bleeding in the brain, delirium, unwanted mood changes, seizure, infection and movement and speech disorders.
Not to mention, the long-term implications of interfering with the workings of your brain are completely unknown, and even in the short term there is the issue of being exposed to strong electromagnetic fields.
This is indeed an area of medicine to keep an eye on, especially for the treatment of currently incurable conditions like Alzheimer's, as it will undoubtedly progress in the coming years.
But in terms of using TMS to alter your mood or morals … unless you favor the idea of walking around hooked up to electrical devices that control your innermost emotions and thoughts, you're better off sticking with natural mood boosters and your own innate principles of morality instead.
Another Subtle Form of Electrical Altering
Many people are not aware of galvanic currents that are created by dissimilar metals in your body.
You are probably wondering which metals I am referring to. Well, it is the rare adult in the US who has not had some type of dental work done, and unfortunately most of that involves using metals.
If only one metal alloy were used there would be no problem, as in any battery you need two dissimilar metals to cause a current to flow. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happens in most dental work as mercury amalgams are composed of mercury and silver.
Other restoration metals are used for crowns and bridges and posts for implants. All of these contribute to galvanic electric currents that frequently exceed the current in your brain.
That is why it is best to seek metal-free dentistry from a qualified biologic dentist whenever you can.