Altruism Linked to Specific Region in the Brain

An interesting study was just published by the University of Zurich, purporting to link altruistic behavior to the size of a specific brain region. From the news release:

“The volume of a small brain region influences one’s predisposition for altruistic behavior. Researchers from the University of Zurich show that people who behave more altruistically than others have more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe, thus showing for the first time that there is a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior.”

Yellow area indicates the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes.

The quickie news reports of the findings are focusing on just one aspect of the research – that there is “more gray matter” in the brains of altruists. Specifically, the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes of the brain. In and of itself, describing differences in the size of brain regions is not all that helpful. We do not yet have a way to determine the difference between causation and correlation when we see these types of images on brain scans. For example, can we say with certainty that the subjects in this study seem to behave altruistically because they have more gray matter in that specific region? Or do they have more gray matter because they behave more altruistically?

Brain imaging research is still in its infancy when it comes to being able to explain human behavior. Lead researcher Ernst Fehr makes this clear when he says,

““These are exciting results for us. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone.” The volume of gray matter is also influenced by social processes.”

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find something interesting. In the official news release about the study, there is a longer description of what the size differences of that brain region seems to indicate.

“The participants in the study also displayed marked differences in brain activity while they were deciding how to split up the money. In the case of selfish people, the small brain region behind the ear is already active when the cost of altruistic behavior is very low. In altruistic people, however, this brain region only becomes more active when the cost is very high. The brain region is thus activated especially strongly when people reach the limits of their willingness to behave altruistically. The reason, the researchers suspect, is that this is when there is the greatest need to overcome man’s natural self-centeredness by activating this brain region.”

That is a far more interesting proposition than simply saying some parts of the brain are found to be larger than other parts of the brain in some individuals. Essentially, the researchers are saying it takes more work to be altruistic. It is hard to be generous, as human beings are understood to be inherently selfish. So our brains have to work harder when faced with potentially “costly” decisions.

CASE STUDY: So, on a lighter note, given what we’ve learned about altruistic behavior, what do you think about Mr. Matheson’s actions in this short parody? Does he have more or less gray matter in the junction between his parietal and temporal lobes? On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being lowest, 10 being highest), how would you rate Mr. Matheson’s altruism?


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