Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Morals, Magnets, and Your Brain

I've had trouble recently finding news stories I want to feature in this part of the blog. However, I just came across something so weird I couldn't pass it up. (The link is here on CNN.)

To summarize the article, researchers at MIT found that by stimulating an electric current in a certain part of the brain, they can change the way people judge other's acts. This particular part of the brain (called the right temporoparietal junction), when active, makes people more likely to consider the intentions behind a particular act, not just the outcome. By creating an electric current in the brains of study participants, researchers were able to disrupt activity in this region. (I assume this was only temporary, although the article doesn't say that.) The researchers then asked the participants to judge morality in certain situations. Some of the scenarios had both bad intentions and a bad outcome; others had bad intentions but a harmless result. After the magnetic treatment, the study participants were more likely to disregard the intentions behind an act and focus on the results when deciding how moral the situation was.

I think I should post a few caveats here before I look at the implications of this study for science fiction. There's still much to learn about how the brain works. This study just looked at a small part of the brain; there may be other areas of the brain that play a role in judging morality, and they may be affected in different ways. The researchers caution that there may be a social aspect to the participants' responses too; they may have said what they thought they should say instead of what they really thought. And while I don't know what type of equipment was used here, it may be a long time before something similar is developed for everyday use.

That said, this study offers a lot of interesting ideas for science fiction writers. Could neurological techniques someday be used to develop a conscience in criminals -- or convince someone to do something against their normal morals? (One of the subplots of Across Two Universes deals with time travelers attempting to brainwash someone into committing murder, though they use drugs.) Could this be applied on a larger scale, making citizens more likely to support a politician's decision to go to war? Can people still have free will or be held responsible for their actions? To what extent is a person's personality affected by the structure of her brain? If it's all physical, do souls exist? If science argues against souls, will this be commonly accepted, or will most people refuse to acknowledge it? These are tough questions to answer, but science fiction can be used as a thought experiment to shed some light on them, and different writers may have different takes on the subject.

1 comment:

lbdiamond said...

Interesting study! Another researcher (I'm forgetting the name and exact details) is using similar techniques to stimulate areas of the brain implicated in depression. One patient stated (when that part of the brain was receiving stimulation), "I feel more connected to you now." When the switch was flipped off, the "connection" faded. Makes you wonder...

Great post!

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