Brain's Altruism Center Uncovered

A complete understanding of the human desire to help others has long eluded scientists and philosophers, but recent study findings provide insight into the brain mechanisms responsible for altruistic behavior.

A complete understanding of the human desire to help others has long eluded scientists and philosophers, but recent study findings provide insight into the brain mechanisms responsible for altruistic behavior.

The study led by researchers from Oxford University and University College London set out to investigate the relationship between empathy and altruism, as well as to better understand differences between individuals’ drive to help others.

“Although people have a remarkable inclination to engage in prosocial behaviors there are substantial differences between individuals,” said lead researcher Patricia Lockwood, PhD, in a press release. “Empathy, the capacity to vicariously experience and understand another person’s feelings, has been put forward as a critical motivator of prosocial behaviors, but we wanted to test why and how they might be linked.”

To do so, the research team instructed participants to complete an exercise in which they figured out a set of symbols that were more likely to give either themselves or someone else a reward. During this exercise, the participants were all scanned in an MRI machine.

After analyzing the MRI scans, the researchers determined that a specific part of the brain known as the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (SACC) was the only region activated when the participants were learning to make choices that could benefit others. Additionally, the SACC was found to be particularly active in participants who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy. This group also learned to benefit others faster than those who considered themselves less empathetic.

“This the first time anyone has shown a particular brain process for learning prosocial behaviors - and a possible link from empathy to learning to help others,” Dr. Lockwood stated. “By understanding what the brain does when we do things for other people, and individual differences in this ability, we are better placed to understand what is going wrong in those whose psychological conditions are characterized by antisocial disregard for others.”

The results of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.