Why Do Good? Brain Study Offers Clues

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter
Monday, January 22, 2007; 12:00 AM

MONDAY, Jan. 22 (HealthDay News) -- People may not perform selfless acts just for an emotional reward, a new brain study suggests.

Instead, they may do good because they're acutely tuned into the needs and actions of others.

Scientists say a piece of the brain linked to perceiving others' intentions shows more activity in unselfish vs. selfish types.

"Perhaps altruism did not grow out of a warm-glow feeling of doing good for others, but out of the simple recognition that that thing over there is a person that has intentions and goals. And therefore, I might want to treat them like I might want them to treat myself," explained study author Scott Huettel, an associate professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C.

He and lead researcher Dharol Tankersley, a graduate student at Duke, published their findings in the Jan. 21 online issue ofNature Neuroscience.

For decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have puzzled over the tendency of humans to engage in altruistic acts -- defined by Huettel's group as acts "that intentionally benefit another organism, incur no direct personal benefit, and sometimes bear a personal cost."

Experts note that altruism doesn't seem to provide individuals with any survival edge, so how and why did it evolve?

To help solve that puzzle, Heuttel's team had a group of healthy young adults either engage in a computer game or watch as the computer played the game itself. In some sessions, the computer and participants played for personal gain, while in other sessions, they played for charity.

The researchers used high-tech functional MRI (fMRI) to observe "hot spots" of activity in the participants' brains as they engaged in these tasks.

Participants were also asked to complete a questionnaire aimed at assessing their personal levels of selfishness or altruism.

Huettel said he was surprised by the study results.

"We went into this experiment with the idea that altruism was really a function of the brain's reward systems -- altruistic people would simply find it more rewarding," he said.

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