Neuroscientists have zoomed into the part of the brain responsible for one of humanity’s purest emotions: generosity.
It’s pretty much accepted in sociology that generosity is a beneficial behavior. Ironically, looking away from your best interest and helping someone else can work out to your advantage in the long run – it can make you more desirable and can do wonders for your brain. Scientists wanted to see where exactly the generosity is ‘located’ in your brain, looking at positive empathy and other psychosocial behaviors.
Dr Patricia Lockwood from Oxford University, who led the study, said:
‘Prosocial behaviours are social behaviours that benefit other people. They are a fundamental aspect of human interactions, essential for social bonding and cohesion, but very little is currently known about how and why people do things to help others.’
She and her team had an fMRI look at volunteers’ brain while they were deciding on giving rewards to other volunteers. Interestingly, they found that generosity can also be a learned behavior, though it takes a bit longer to learn it than those which benefit yourself. In the end, they were able to identify a particular brain area involved in giving the best result for other people.
‘A specific part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex was the only part of the brain that was activated when learning to help other people. Put another way, the subgenual anterior cingulate seems to be especially tuned to benefiting other people.
‘However, this region of the brain was not equally active in every person. People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learnt to benefit others faster than those who reported having lower levels of empathy. They also showed increased signalling in their subgenual anterior cingulate cortex when benefitting others.’
As it turns out, not everyone is generous in the same way. The ability to understand other people’s emotions and feelings are a key part of generosity, but the link is complex and difficult to understand for now.
The immediate application for this study would be understanding psychopathy or other anti- or asocial behaviors. Psychopathy is generally characterized by persistent antisocial behavior and impaired or non-existent empathy. The consequence is often a bold and egotistical behavior. In the log run, however, this could help us understand what motivates people to behave the way they do, and how we can encourage members of society to be more generous.
Journal Reference: Patricia L. Lockwood, Matthew A. J. Apps, Vincent Valton, Essi Viding, and Jonathan P. Roiser. Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy. PNAS, 2016 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1603198113