July 16, 2012
Brain Region Predicts Degree Of Altruism

A big temporoparietal junction (TPJ) in the brain enables greater understanding of the perspective of others. That enhanced ability to see from another perspective makes people more altruistic.

"This is the first study to link both brain anatomy and brain activation to human altruism," says senior study author Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich. "The findings suggest that the development of altruism through appropriate training or social practices might occur through changes in the brain structure and the neural activations that we identified in our study."

Individuals who excel at understanding others' intents and beliefs are more altruistic than those who struggle at this task. The ability to understand others' perspectives has previously been associated with activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). Based on these past findings, Fehr and his team reasoned that the size and activation of the TPJ would relate to individual differences in altruism.

In the new study, subjects underwent a brain imaging scan and played a game in which they had to decide how to split money between themselves and anonymous partners. Subjects who made more generous decisions had a larger TPJ in the right hemisphere of the brain compared with subjects who made stingy decisions.

Moreover, activity in the TPJ reflected each subject's specific cutoff value for the maximal cost the subject was willing to endure to increase the partner's payoff. Activity in the TPJ was higher during hard decisions—when the personal cost of an altruistic act was just below the cutoff value—than during easy decisions associated with a very low or very high cost.

Once it becomes possible to select genes for offspring will future parents choose genes that make for bigger or smaller TPJ? In other words, will future humans be more or less altrustic?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 July 16 07:52 PM  Brain Altruism


Comments
PacRim Jim said at July 17, 2012 12:19 AM:

The wonderful thing about future biotechnology is that not only will we humans be able to designing our children's genomes, but we'll be able to turn our genes on/off as desired.
A methyl group here, another there. Voila, I'm an extrovert, for today at least.

Lono said at July 17, 2012 11:04 AM:

More data for the Sorting Hat - this is good news!

Most likely those who value altruism will select for it - and those who don't will see it as a liability. The division between the haves and have-nots will significantly increase - and the benevolent Homo Superior shall begin to emerge.

Can't happen soon enough!

bbartlog said at July 20, 2012 5:50 AM:

I bet professional poker players have oversized temporoparietal junctions. Though other parts of their brains act to prevent actual altruistic behavior from taking place at the table :-)

Skeptic said at July 20, 2012 11:22 AM:

OMG, people.

Is it cause or effect?

Don M said at July 20, 2012 12:07 PM:

Cue for employers to require brain scans before hiring.

DonM said at July 20, 2012 2:45 PM:

Altruism: your wife has cancer, so you take the money for her treatment and give it to 10 strangers.

Altruism is a form of mental illness.

Thomas HAzlewood said at July 20, 2012 5:10 PM:

I play a lot of games, online. I can be VERY 'altruistic' in those games....because what I give to others is imaginary. Their test results, based on their game results, are bogus. Is it altruistic to give away something of no value to you? If the thing does have value to you, does one judge the degree of value you place on it by how much you give away or by how much you keep for yourself? The test, and its results, both appear useless, pointless.

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