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fMRI Pinpoints Brain’s Seat Of Big-Heartedness

July 12, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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The amount of gray matter in a certain brain region seems to play a role in determining the size of one’s heart—poetically speaking.

Researchers at the University of Zurich, using functional MRI, discovered that altruism was related to a certain area of the brain. According to Yosuke Morishima, MD, PhD:

People who behaved more altruistically also had a higher proportion of gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes.

Dr. Morishima is a postdoctoral researcher at the economics department of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. He was quoted in a university news release.

Previous studies had shown the same area of the brain to be related to the ability to see things from another’s point of view—to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings.

Dr. Morishima and his colleagues scanned the brains of volunteers playing a game that involved dividing money between themselves and an anonymous other person. They always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. Some participants almost never were willing to do so while others almost always were.

The finding that the more altruistic subjects had more gray matter in a certain brain area does not mean that altruistic behavior is hard-wired from birth. For one thing, nobody knows whether training or the influence of social norms might increase or shrink the size of that brain region.

Also, the brain scans found differences in brain activity as well as brain structure. In the more selfish subjects, the brain area in question became active even when the cost of being altruistic was very low. In the most altruistic subjects, it became most active only when the cost of altruistic behavior was very high. That suggests that some other factor or factors make people more or less inclined to be altruistic, and that this area of the brain serves primarily to delineate the outer limits of altruistic behavior.

Ernst Fehr, PhD, chairman of the university economics department and senior author of the paper, cautioned:

These are exciting results for us. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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