The detection of 'agency', the presence of an active participant in a situation, involves a brain region that is more active in altruistic people, reports a study in the February issue of Nature Neuroscience. Altruism, the tendency of people to help others without obvious benefit to themselves, remains a scientific puzzle.
Scott Huettel and colleagues scanned the brains of people while they were either playing a simple computer game to earn money for charity or just watching the computer play the game by itself. Knowing that the computer is earning money for a good cause makes it easier to imagine an active intentional 'mind' behind that screen, apparently turning the game into a social situation involving altruistic behaviour. Figuring out social relationships generally involves activation of the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) on the right side of the brain. The authors indeed saw activity in this region specifically when participants were just watching the game.
The authors also asked participants to answer questions designed to assess their tendency toward altruistic behavior, and found that the magnitude of pSTS activation strongly correlated with individual levels of altruism measured in response to these questions. Thus it seems that a specific brain response to a simulated altruistic situation may be directly related to a person's real-life unselfish behavior.
Scott Huettel (Duke University, Durham, NC, USA)
Additional contact for comment on the paper:
Read Montague (Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA)
Abstract available online.
(C) Nature Neuroscience press release.
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