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."