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That Thing in Your Brain

by Gerald Epling

Is your moral compass in your brain?

Have you ever wondered where a thought came from? Sometimes it is easy to go back in a conversation and see where you made a turn onto one topic or another. Following a conversation back in time is relatively easy because conversations include fully formed words. And words may be backed by thought and considered opinion. Although, there are some conversations that seem to support the assertion that talking is just a behavior with no other significance. But behavior versus intention is not the topic today. Today we will look into the “Black Box” of the brain and go beyond the brain to consider the mind.

Things that cross our mind are few in number when compared to the things that go into life experience. A lot of things occur in our day to day experiences that just never rise to the level of conscious thought. So, why do some things come to mind? This question was asked in a very careful way through a psychological experiment performed about three years ago. The experiment was set up to get at the neural support structure for someone taking an interest in the welfare of another. Here is the gist of one scenario that was used in this experiment:

“Grace and her friend are touring a chemical plant …” While at the plant, Grace finds a pot of coffee and pours herself a cup for herself and for her friend. Grace’s friend asks for sugar in the coffee. Grace notices something in a container on the coffee table that looks like sugar, but it is marked “Toxic”. Grace decides to pour some of the “toxic” sugar in her friend’s coffee gives it to her. In some outcomes the friend dies. In other outcomes the friend is fine, suffering no ill effect. In some of the moral dilemma setups, Grace knows that the sugar is sugar. In other setups Grace thinks that the sugar is indeed toxic. Different people are asked to consider whether or not Grace is guilty of any misdeed by placing the sugar in the coffee given one of the scenarios.

Here is where the experiment gets really interesting. About the time the participants in the experiment are pondering whether or not Grace has done a reasonable thing by adding “sugar” to her friend’s coffee, their brains are hobbled.

In order to disrupt the activity of the brain, the experimenters zapped a certain area of the brain with a strong and varying electromagnetic field. The field that was used is known to be capable of disrupting the ability to use the brain for a period of time. Some experiments with this sort of device have shown that a person needs to really concentrate in order to quickly regain a manual skill, that was disrupted by this sort of stimulation. The disruption of brain activity is widely believed to be reversible. Interestingly, disruption of the brain with strong electromagnetic fields is sometimes used to treat depression.

The experiment is interesting on a couple of levels. First, is there an area of the brain that can be temporarily disabled and thereby disrupt moral judgement? Second, I have always wondered if zapping the brain with a strong electromagnetic field really does not produce any lasting brain injury. Who knows?

It is interesting that experimenters view the electromagetic disabling of the brain as a sort of reversible “lesion” or a reversible form of brain damage. The reversal of the brain disabling is probably quicker than the disabling the comes with drugs and certainly is reversible in contrast with actual brain tumors or lesions. So, all things considered, the knowledge that stands to be gained appears to outweigh the dangers, according to current thinking.

Returning to the problem of deciding the culpability of Grace in the “toxic” sugar story. The experimenters did find that zapping sections of the right side of the brain made it easier for participants to conclude that as long as Grace’s friend did not die, there was no problem. The authors of the paper present their findings as an indication that disrupting brain activity led participants to see the outcome as the important thing. That is, temporary, reversible brain damage leads people to be outcome based and not so interested in intent.

The ability of a group of scientists to link brain damage to a personal focus on outcomes over intention may be tied to the concept of deep calling to deep. Put another way, you can’t give what you don’t have.

Nancy Kanwisher shepherded the article of interest to press in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in April of 2010.


Young, L., Camprodon, J.A., Hauser, M., Pascual-Leone, A., Saxe, R. (2010). Disruption of the right temporo-parietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, U.S.A. [Online] Available: