Understanding Altruism

Posted: September 16, 2014 in Behaviour, Biology, Compassion, Ethics, Psychology, Science, Society
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A multi-disciplinary research team from Washington DC and Washington State have published an important new study entitled ‘Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists.’

Altruism, and particularly costly altruism toward strangers, such as kidney donation, is poorly understood by science, particularly in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology. The question has been posed time and time again: ‘How can such behaviour be rationalised and explained?

Although it is fair to say that the propensity to engage in costly altruism varies widely across and within populations,  Abigail A. Marsh and her research team argue that although it may be genetically mediated, very little is known about the neural mechanisms that drive it. In order to make more concrete conclusions, the Washington team used structural and functional brain imaging to compare extraordinary altruists, specifically altruistic kidney donors, and controls. What did they find?  Fascinatingly, it would appear that altruists exhibit variations in neural anatomy and functioning that are the mirror image of patterns previously documented in psychopaths, who by their very nature are callous and lacking in empathy.

Such findings are significant in that they suggest that there are neural correlates that underlie social and emotional behaviour and help us to understand the science of empathy.

The Washington researchers anticipate that their findings will provide the basis for an expanded scope of research on biological mechanisms that enhance altruistic behaviours.

 Empathy, and altruism, is the cornerstone of Christianity; the Sermon on the Mount says it all.  So it’s interesting to note that some of us may be hardwired for empathy and altruistic behaviour, whilst others find it more difficult.  This study raises the interesting question of whether neural mechanisms can be changed by behavioural input, that is, modulated by our own behaviour?  Can neuroplasticity facilitate a more altruistic outlook on life? Science may well provide that answer more quickly than we might think.

You can read the entire article here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/09/11/1408440111

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