Saturday science subject: The root of altruism
As the Washington Post reports, two neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health have made some interesting discoveries regarding the source of altruism in humans.
Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman scanned subjects' brains after quizzing them about a scenario involving giving money to charity or keeping it for themselves. When patients chose to place the interest of others first, the choice "activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex." The experiment suggests altruism isn't a higher mental function but a basic and pleasurable act hard-wired into our brains.
Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.
Even more interesting, experiments have shown patients with brain damage can forgo altruism and take a much colder and more pragmatic approach to moral dilemmas like whether or not to shoot down a plane that's been hijacked by terrorists. In those patients, base altruistic impulses don't conflict with parts of the brain that involve "cooler aspects of cognition."