Since the human brain is electrochemical in nature it only makes sense that powerful, directed magnetic fields can affect it.
That's exactly what a team of Estonian scientists claim to have found. Remarkably, they also discovered that the human trait for lying is more often than not a spur of the moment urge and selective brain stimulation can quash the brain's choice to fabricate an untruth.
Dr. Liane Young, director of the Morality Lab at the Department of Psychology at Boston College, and one of the leaders of the breakthrough study, observed, "You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgements is really astonishing."
Their research paper, "Effect of prefrontal transcranial magnetic stimulation on spontaneous truth-telling" was published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. [Volume 225, Issue 1, 20 November 2011, Pages 209-214.]
The story was picked up by several news outlets, but what was not reported—or under-reported—was the finding the Estonian scientists made that the proper stimulation of the brain can make a person lie and lie continuously.
Telling the truth, or lying, can be induced by what the researchers call "transcranial magnetic stimulation" (TMS). Using this method, the Estonian team polarized targeted neurons in test subjects' brains by generating a focused electromagnetic field. This effectively stimulated or decreased electrical energy in the regions of the brain targeted.
"Spontaneous choice to lie more or less can be influenced by brain stimulation," team members Karton and Bachmann explained in the published paper.
According to a PopSci summary of the surprising experimental results, "16 subjects were shown colored discs and told that they could either lie or tell the truth about what color they saw. The researchers then applied transcranial magnetic stimulation to the left or right dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes and observed the results.
"They found that the magnetic stimulation seemed to sway the response of the participants toward more truth-telling or lying. Respondents whose left side was stimulated lied more often, whereas those with right-side stimulation lied less often."
Philosophical and moral questions are raised by this research. The study focused on people who had no reason to lie. Exposure to the magnetic pulses either caused them to lie or made them tell the truth. Among the many questions the study raises is why will people lie when they have no reason to benefit from a lie?
The answer might be that some lie just to make life more exciting. A lie is dangerous behavior and might add spice to an otherwise mundane life. Whether that's true or not will have to be explored by other research in other fields.
In the meantime, with the new physical evidence that magnetic fields can influence peoples veracity, do those living near powerful magnetic fields lie more or lie less?
Like all good science, the Estonian research raises more questions than it answers.