Phoebe Weston | The Daily Mail | Source URL
Brain stimulation could change the morality of criminals so they are forced to feel remorseful about their crime, according to a cognitive neuroscientist.
Convicted criminals could have years shaved off their custodial sentences if they agree to have electrical stimulation therapy that made them feel guilty.
This is according to Dr Nick Davis from Manchester Metropolitan University, who says the science is not quite ready to be rolled-out, but could be in the near future.
Brain stimulation has already been proven to change someone’s moral choices, showing our ‘moral compass’ is not fixed and can easily be manipulated, he said.
This noninvasive brain stimulation, known as transcranial direct current stimulation, uses electrodes to make brain cells more sensitive and more likely to be active.
‘If you could make someone feel more sorry for a crime, you could say shorten their sentence by five years if they agree to have electrical stimulation’, Dr Nick Davis told MailOnline after a presentation at New Scientist Live in London’s ExCel centre.
He suggested that the criminal might receive regular simulations – perhaps one a week – which may have to be continued after they left prison.
‘Brain stimulation could be used to make people feel even more sorry for things they’ve done,’ Dr Davis said.
‘We can directly intervene in someone’s basic moral processing,’ he said, adding that the development is exciting as well as worrying.
‘Most people think that their own moral code is the thing that defines them, so the fact that this can be changed may be good (if the person is a criminal) or may be bad (interfering with voting preferences),’ he said.
This has already been demonstrated with the famous trolley problem – a commonly used thought problem in the field of ethics.
In this hypothetical scenario, there is a runaway trolley or train that is barreling down a railway track with five people tied to it.
Someone has a lever that would change the direction of the train so that it killed just one person instead of five. The question is — do you pull it?
There is no right answer to this problem.
A utilitarian would say that the best (or least-worst) outcome would be to pull the lever, however, a non-utilitarian would say pulling the lever is the same as intentionally killing one person – so you should not do it, Dr Davis explained.
However, early research suggests people who get brain stimulation become less likely to pull the lever and more likely to sacrifice five people.
‘The implication I guess is that people’s moral compass can be manipulated,’ he explained.
It is still not exactly clear how transcranial direct current stimulation affects the brain, with the side-effects of the treatment still being actively explored.
‘You put a negative electrode and positive electrode over someone’s head they will polarise the cells,’ Dr Davis said.
‘Cells near the positive electrode will become more likely to fire, cells near the negative electrode become less likely to work and this effect can continue for up to an hour afterwards.’
Brain stimulation is an exciting new area of neurological research.
Last year, researchers found electrical stimulation could make people more honest.
In an experiment, participants were asked to take part in a game where they could increase their earnings by cheating.
Researchers found most people in the game cheated to make more money.
But some participants stuck to the truth.
‘Most people seem to weigh motives of self-interest against honesty on a case-by-case basis,’ said Professor Michel Maréchal from the University of Zurich.
‘They cheat a little but not on every possible occasion.’
They added that eight per cent of people choose to cheat in every game, regardless of the potential rewards.
The researchers then stimulated the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of the brain.
When the researchers applied this stimulation during the task, participants were less likely to cheat.
The new results raises questions around the degree to which honest behaviour is based on biological predispositions.
Professor Maréchal said: ‘If breaches of honesty indeed represent an organic condition, our results question to what extent people can be made fully liable for their wrongdoings.’
WHAT IS THE TROLLEY PROBLEM?
The famous trolley problem is a thought problem in the field of ethics.
In a hypothetical scenario there is a runaway trolley – or train – that is travelling down a railway track with five people tied to it.
Someone has a lever that would change the direction of the train so it killed just one person instead of five. The question is do you pull it?
There is no right answer to this problem.
A utilitarian would say that the best (or least-worst) outcome would be to pull the lever but a non-utilitarian would say that pulling the lever is the same as intentionally killing one person, so you should not do it.