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Are We Really Born Altruistic?


Many may believe that humans only look out for themselves, probably due to human nature. However, two groundbreaking University of California-Los Angeles studies revealed that altruism is more hard-wired in the brain than previously thought.

Moreover, the findings of this studies show that empathy can be increased, enabling people to behave less selfishly. UCLA neuroscientists tested how altruistic people can be in two tests, which have been published in Human Brain Mapping and Social Neuroscience, respectively.

Initially, the research team showed 20 participants a video about a pin poking a hand and asked them to mimic images of facial expressions showing happiness, sadness, excitement and anger.

Helping the homeless in New York City. Photo by Ed Yourdon/Wikipedia

Helping the homeless in New York City. Photo by Ed Yourdon/Wikipedia

In another activity, they asked the participants to play the dictator game where they were given the choice to keep the $10 (AU$13.18) given to them per round for 24 rounds or share it with a stranger, whose income and ages have all been taken into account.

The participant’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling behaviour and impulses, as well as their amygdale, somatosensory cortex and interior insula, which are associated with pain sensation, emotion and imitation, have been analysed through an MRI.

One-third of the participants with the strongest brain response responsible for pain sensation, emotion and imitation gave 75 percent of their earned money, the most generous among the group. The researchers called this prosocial resonance or mirroring impulse, which is thought to dictate altruism.

However, those with most prefrontal cortex response only gave away $1 to $3 (AU$ 1.32 to AU$ 3.95) in each round.

“It’s almost like these areas of the brain behave according to a neural Golden Rule,” says Leonardo Christov-Moore. “The more we tend to vicariously experience the states of others, the more we appear to be inclined to treat them as we would ourselves.”

For their second study, they dampened the activities in different prefrontal cortex regions of 58 participants by exposing them to a 40-second non-invasive procedure called theta-burst Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

When they disrupted the prefrontal cortex activities, the participants became 50 percent more generous. Dampening their dorsomedial prefrontal cortex became more generous to everyone but dampening the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex only made the participants more generous to strangers with higher income and less to those who are in need.

“Normally, participants would have been expected to give according to need, but with that area of the brain dampened, they temporarily lost the ability for social judgments to affect their behaviour,” Christov-Moore adds. “By dampening this area, we believe we laid bare how altruistic each study participant naturally was.”


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