Mildly altruistic blog post rooted in the brain

Brain science is super interesting and important, of course. In fact, “the brain” is gaining on “the mind” as a topic of our brain-mind’s fixation (Google ngrams):

brainmind

I take a tiny share of responsibility for this trend, as during one of my journalism careers I wrote a 1995 news article about “brain-based learning” for a newsletter sent to more than 100,000 K-12 educators.

On the plus side, in my old article I devoted considerable attention to the issue of brain plasticity, or how brains change in response to time and experience. That plasticity perspective was conspicuously absent from Michelle Trudeau’s NPR story this morning about the brains of extreme altruists. The story was based on a paywalled PNAS article which reported that a nonrandom group of 19 anonymous kidney donors had bigger right amygdalas, and heightened emotional response to pictures of faces, than a nonrandom group of 20 controls. The authors conclude that “these findings suggest extraordinary altruism [is] supported by neural mechanisms that underlie social and emotional responsiveness.”

Or, maybe the cumulative experiences of adults who turn out to be extraordinary altruists change their brains. (Or even, maybe the experience of giving a kidney itself affects people’s brains.) It appears that amygdala size changes within people over time, and that it is correlated with the size of people’s social networks. So, the causal sequencing here is something to consider.

What if, as they imply, something about the way people are born makes them more or less likely to be an extraordinary altruist versus a psychopath (a group this researcher previously studied). How much of the real-life variation in altruism might such a genetic or anatomical influence account for? If that proportion is low, then this is a fascinating evolutionary question with little social implication — worth studying, but not worth writing about with headlines like, “Good Deeds May Be Rooted In The Brain.”

The PNAS authors conclude:

It should be emphasized, however, that the mechanisms we have identified are unlikely to represent a complete explanation for altruistic kidney donation, given the extreme rarity of this phenomenon, and given the overlapping distributions we observed for the variables we measured. Acts of extraordinary altruism are likely to reflect a combination of the neurocognitive characteristics identified here, along with other individual- or community-level variables.

That seems like a safe bet, given this distribution of amygdala size across the two groups:

altruismbrains

In short, we should consider the possibility, however slight, that altruism also has social causes. Disciplinary culture, I suppose, but I’ve never finished an article with a caution to readers that I may not have completely explained the phenomenon under study.

1 Comment

Filed under Research reports

One response to “Mildly altruistic blog post rooted in the brain

  1. I was disappointed that the researchers stopped short of causal explanations. I think that it would have been within the scope of the study had the researchers continued on to examine what may have happened in the subjects’ lives to possibly cause their neurobiological and psychological attributes.

    An accompanying PNAS commentary from a Harvard researcher made some interesting points. However, the author showed his biases that the thinking brain rules human behavior with an out-of-left-field question at the end of a paragraph in which he developed specious reasoning.

    He was completely off base when he stated: “Could it be that extraordinary altruists such as Maupin [a study participant] and the 19 individuals studied by Marsh et al. [the researchers] are special, not only because of how they feel when they see people in distress, but because of how they think?” I don’t imagine that the brilliant commentator’s attempt to upstage the study’s subjects and get the spotlight on himself for some brilliant idea was much appreciated by anyone involved.

    The amygdala is the central hub of a person’s feeling brain. The study’s findings had very little to say about the subjects’ thinking brains.

    To postulate that the researchers missed that there was something different about the subjects’ thinking brains was out of touch with the realities of both the researchers’ scientific bases and the subjects. It’s another example of the current research mindset/social meme of thinking brain dominance.

    http://surfaceyourrealself.com/2015/05/14/a-larger-amygdala-in-people-who-donated-a-kidney-to-strangers-surfaceyourrealself/

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