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This Is Your Brain on Altruism

(Photo: John M)

We’ve had a lot to say about altruism, and how economists and others have tried to study it. A group of economists at the University of Zurich now claims to have found a spot in the brain associated with altruistic behavior. From Pacific Standard:

It’s called the right temporoparietal junction (or TPJ for short). Along with many other crucial functions, this neural crossroads gives us the ability to understand the perspectives of others—a prerequisite for empathy.

Swiss scholars report they have found a strong connection between the TPJ and a person’s willingness to engage in selfless acts.

“The structure of the TPJ strongly predicts an individual’s set point for altruistic behavior, while activity in this brain region predicts an individual’s acceptable cost for altruistic actions,” reports lead author Yosuke Morishima of the Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research at the University of Zurich’s Department of Economics.

Thirty adults played a variety of games while their brains were being scanned. The study’s authors conclude that: “[I]ndividual differences in GM volume in TPJ not only translate into individual differences in the general propensity to behave altruistically, but they also create a link between brain structure and brain function by indicating the conditions under which individuals are likely to recruit this region when they face a conflict between altruistic and selfish acts.”

Do keep in mind that neither neuroeconomics nor empirical assessment of altruism should be considered foolproof, not by a long shot …