The Science of Altruism? Researchers Discover Brain Patterns Associated with Selflessness

In studies of the brain performed by researchers at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., a link has been found between the desire to "do good" and the functioning of the brain. Long associated with an emotional component, or that "warm fuzzy" feeling one thinks of when contemplating altruistic behavior and being kind to others, the drive to be good may be more cerebral than emotional.

"Perhaps altruism did not grow out of a warm-glow feeling of doing good for others, but out of the simple recognition that that thing over there is a person that has intentions and goals," explains study author Scott Huettel, an associate professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C.

"And therefore, I might want to treat them like I might want them to treat myself,"

The ability to live by the golden rule may be displayed in an MRI of the brain.

In the study, which was published in the January 21 online issue of Nature Neuroscience, the scientists say that a piece of the brain linked to perceiving others' intentions shows more activity in people with unselfish motives and personalities than in those who behave more selfishly.

The researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) imaging to observe increases in activity in the study participants' brains. These participants filled out a questionnaire that helped the researchers to assess their personal levels of selfishness or altruism. They were then asked to play a computer game. Some of the participants played for personal gain, while others played to benefit charity.

According to Huettel, they were surprised by the results of the study. "We went into this experiment with the idea that altruism was really a function of the brain's reward systems," he said. "(We thought that) altruistic people would simply find it more rewarding,"

As it turned out, the region of the brain most stimulated by thoughts and acts of altruism is not the region that focuses on reward, but one that focuses on perceiving others' intentions and actions, according to Huettel.

"The general function of this region is that it seems to be associated with perceiving, usually visually, stimuli that seems meaningful to us. For example, something in the environment that might move an object from place to place," he explained.

According to Huettel, altruism may rely on a basic understanding that others have motivations and actions that may be similar to our own. "It's not exactly empathy," he says. It is a functioning of the brain that may have evolved in order to allow human beings the ability to anticipate what others may do, as a protective mechanism. "We think that altruism may have grown out of- at least in part- such a system."

Source: Forbes

Published by K. Cauldwell

I have danced on stage with Bono, and I can walk barefoot over hot summer asphalt. Also, I like to write.  View profile

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  • The portion of the brain that is stimulated by acts of altruism is not the portion that contemplates reward.
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  • The researchers state that they were very surprised by the results of their study.
Scientists have long wondered why the ability for altruism developed in the human brain, as it is not connected with survival.