Volume of grey matter may predict degree of altruism

September 17, 2012
Volume of grey matter may predict degree of altruism
Credit: UoZ

What makes a person altruistic? Philosophers throughout the ages often pondered the question but failed to get concrete answers. New research from the University of Zurich in Switzerland shows that the answer may lie in our brains, or more accurately, that the volume of a small brain region can influences one's predisposition for altruistic behaviour. The results, presented in the journal Neuron, indicate that individuals who behave more altruistically than others have more grey matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe. This shows for the very first time that there is a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behaviour.

Contary to past studies that showed that social categories like gender, income or education cannot fully explain differences in altruistic behaviour, recent research in the area of neuroscience have demonstrated that differences in might be linked to differences in and abilities. Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich, headed by Ernst Fehr, the director of the Department of Economics, demonstrates that there is a connection between and altruistic behaviour.

For their study, the researchers asked volunteers to divide money between themselves and someone else who was anonymous. The participants always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. The monetary sacrifice was considered to be altruistic because it helped someone else at one's own expense. The researchers found major differences in this respect: some participants were almost never willing to sacrifice money to benefit others while others behaved very altruistically.

Previous studies showed that the place where the parietal and temporal lobes meet is linked to the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes in order to understand their thoughts and feelings, an ability the researchers considered closely related to altruism.

So the team hypothesised that individual differences in this part of the brain might be linked to differences in altruistic behaviour. And, according to Yosuke Morishima, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, they were right: 'People who behaved more altruistically also had a higher proportion of at the junction between the parietal and .'

The researchers also discovered that the subjects displayed marked differences in 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 behaviour is very low. In altruistic people, however, this brain region only becomes more active when the cost is very high. The brain region is 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.

Said Dr Fehr: 'These are exciting results for us. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behaviour is determined by biological factors alone.'

It appears that the volume of grey matter can also be influenced by social processes. According to Dr Fehr, the findings therefore raise the question as to whether it is possible to promote the development of that are important for altruistic behaviour through training or social norms.

Explore further: Individual differences in altruism explained by brain region involved in empathy

More information: Morishima, Y., et al. 'Linking brain structure and activation in the temporoparietal junction to explain the neurobiology of human altruism'. Neuron. 2012.

Related Stories

Individual differences in altruism explained by brain region involved in empathy

July 11, 2012
What can explain extreme differences in altruism among individuals, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Mother Teresa? It may all come down to variation in the size and activity of a brain region involved in appreciating others' perspectives, ...

Eat today, pay tomorrow: 
lean women think ahead

June 27, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Being overweight is accompanied by changes in brain structure and behaviour. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Integrated Research and Treatment Center ...

Recommended for you

Small but distinct differences among species mark evolution of human brain

November 23, 2017
The most dramatic divergence between humans and other primates can be found in the brain, the primary organ that gives our species its identity.

Team constructs whole-brain map of electrical connections key to forming memories

November 22, 2017
A team of neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania has constructed the first whole-brain map of electrical connectivity in the brain based on data from nearly 300 neurosurgical patients with electrodes implanted ...

What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

November 22, 2017
Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every ...

To forget or to remember? Memory depends on subtle brain signals, scientists find

November 22, 2017
The fragrance of hot pumpkin pie can bring back pleasant memories of holidays past, while the scent of an antiseptic hospital room may cause a shudder. The power of odors to activate memories both pleasing and aversive exists ...

Pitch imperfect? How the brain decodes pitch may improve cochlear implants

November 22, 2017
Picture yourself with a friend in a crowded restaurant. The din of other diners, the clattering of dishes, the muffled notes of background music, the voice of your friend, not to mention your own – all compete for your ...

New research suggests high-intensity exercise boosts memory

November 22, 2017
The health advantages of high-intensity exercise are widely known but new research from McMaster University points to another major benefit: better memory.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.