The Frontal Cortex

Holiday Altruism

Since it’s supposed to be the season of charity, that time of year when we remember those who are less fortunate than we are, I thought I’d post on altruism and the brain, since there have recently been a few interesting studies. The basic moral of these experiments is that we are built to be altruistic. We are social animals that have evolved the ability to care about each other.

Consider a paper recently published in Nature Neuroscience. Scientists at Duke University imaged the brains of people as they observed a computer play a simple video game. Because the subjects were told that the computer was playing the game for a specific purpose⎯it wanted to earn money⎯their brains automatically treated the computers like “intentional agents,” complete with goals and feelings. (Our mind is so eager to detect other minds that it often imbues inanimate objects, like computers and stuffed animals, with mental states.) Once that happened, the scientists were able to detect activity in those specialized brain areas, like the superior temporal sulcus, that help us theorize and sympathize with the emotions of other people. Even though the subjects knew they were watching a computer, they couldn’t help but imagine what the computer was feeling.

Now comes the interesting part: The scientists noticed that, during the experiment, there was a lot of individual variation. Some people had very active sympathetic brains, while others seemed rather uninterested in thinking about the feelings of someone else. So the scientists conducted a survey of altruistic behavior, asking people how likely they would be to “help a stranger carry a heavy object” or “let a friend borrow a car”. That’s when the correlation became clear: People who showed more brain activity in their sympathetic regions were also much more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior. Because they intensely imagined the feelings of other people, they wanted to make other people feel better, even if it came at personal expense.

But here’s the lovely secret of altruism: It feels good. The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable; being nice to others makes us feel nice. An elegant brain imaging experiment proves the point. A few dozen people were each given $128, and allowed to choose between keeping the money or donating it to charity. When they chose to give away the money, the reward centers of the brain became active. Dopamine flooded their synapses, and they experienced the delightful glow of unselfishness. From the perspective of our brain, giving was literally better than getting. Thoreau was right: “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”


  1. #1 peggy
    December 20, 2007

    Question: Is this the same part of the brain that you referred to in your earlier post about psychopaths?

  2. #2 jonah
    December 20, 2007

    Good question, peggy. Nobody quite knows what happens in the psychopathic brain. Psychopaths certainly have problems sympathizing with emotions in others, but I’m not aware of any studies that have focused on the superior temporal sulcus. This brain region has, however, been implicated in personal moral decisions – those decisions where we do direct harm to somebody else – so it’s certainly possible, For more on personal moral decisions, I’d check out the work of Joshua Greene, of Harvard.

  3. #3 peggy
    December 20, 2007

    Thanks so much for the tip. This guy’s work is fascinating. In turn, I recommend that your blog readers who were particularly interested in your post on experimental philosophy check out Greene’s personal web page.

  4. #4 Alan
    December 20, 2007

    Thanks for the suggestion, Peggy. Have you read “Moral Minds” by Marc Hauser, also of Harvard? I own the book, but must admit to not having gotten to it yet (too busy writing comments on blogs).

  5. #5 peggy
    December 21, 2007

    Thanks for the Marc Hauser tip, Alan. I don’t own the book, nor have I heard of it, but will check it out. I too have been a little too busy blogging of late!

  6. #6 Dave Briggs
    December 21, 2007

    But here’s the lovely secret of altruism: It feels good. The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable; being nice to others makes us feel nice.

    Yep, a lovely secret! LOL! I remember the family reunion we had. I got to sit at the table with a bunch of highly educated people and to start up what I knew would be an interesting conversation. I asked if they thought there was really such a thing as altruism? It did turn out to be interesting. Some said yes, some said no. I stood squarely on the middle of the fence and said there was really no way to know and alluded to the type of research you mentioned here.
    Since neurologically, virtue is in reality it’s own reward it is hard to say if there really is such a thing as altruism. Of course it makes it much more pleasant world with people being nice, whether they get a brain chemical kick from it or not! LOL!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  7. #7 Rachael
    December 26, 2007

    The Duke paper is very interesting, though I’m not sure if I’m totally satisfied with the method. I am bothered that the only measure analyzed is a self-reported altruism scale. I might prefer the word “empathy” to “altruism”, but I’m not in the field so maybe that’s a semantic argument.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to see more data for response times (=effort). On average, subjects responded faster on subject receiving trials than on charity receiving trials. The authors stated: “…nor was the difference between response times on subject-receiving and charity-receiving trials significant (high-altruism = 40 ms; low-altruism = 57 ms; t(26) = 0.7; p > 0.1).” (Supplementary Note, online). There is no significant difference in response times, but I see a hint of a trend. Maybe if the stakes of the game were higher, there would be a difference based on pSTC activation or self reported altruism scores.

    Their altruistic questionnaire has a scale relating to degree of altruistic effort (eg, helping a stranger versus helping a friend). Could they design a simple task that discriminates altruistic motivation from altruistic effort? Sure we’d all like to help the starving children, but which of us actually do something about it, and can that effort be correlated to a brain region? It seems that their focus on the watching vs. playing, as well as their metric (which is self-scoring), primarily identifies motivation and does not emphasize altruistic behavior.

  8. #8 jb
    December 29, 2007

    Neuroscientific experiments on meditators show that it is possible to shift the emotional setpoint of the brain thru meditation. Among the various meditation techniques in the Buddhist tradition there are some that invovle generating compassion for others and even taking in the suffering of others. My recollection is that these practices showed the strongest indications of happiness in the brains of the practicioners. I have not read the book, but suspect this research is referenced in Train Your Mind, Change Brain by S. Begley (2007) with foreword by the Dalai Lama and preface by Daniel Goleman.

  9. #9 John V. Jackson
    December 30, 2007

    For a view on how such oxytocin-related motivations are too often wrongly disregarded in favour of the competitive description of human nature, you might try “Pinker’s List”. Nice illustrations too.

New comments have been disabled.