A group of scientists headed by Ernst Fehr,
director, department of economics, from the University of Zurich has discovered
that the volume of a region of the brain is responsible for a person's propensity
to altruism. The team discovered that more gray matter is present at the
junction between the parietal lobe and temporal lobe in people who are
This is for the
first time that a connection has been established between altruistic behavior
and brain function. To
probe deeper into this connect; an experiment was conducted wherein the
volunteers were expected to divide money between themselves and another person
who was anonymous. They were given the option of sacrificing a part of their
money to this third person so that he could benefit at their expense.
It didn't come as a great surprise when the
researchers found that some of the participants were completely unwilling to
part with any money while others did not hesitate to help.
But the purpose of the study was to discover
the reason behind the difference in altruistic behavior between individuals.
Earlier studies have indicated that the
meeting place of the parietal and temporal lobes is linked to one's ability to
empathize. Altruism is closely linked to this ability to empathize. The Zurich scientists suspected that the
difference in the volume of gray matter in this part of the brain is
responsible for the difference in altruistic behavior and their suspicion
turned out right
Besides, the study participants also
displayed characteristic differences in brain activity while they were deciding
on methods to split up the money. In selfish people, in whom altruism is low, a
small region of the brain behind the ear is active quite early on, while in
altruistic people this region of the brain becomes more active only when they
have reached their limits of willingness to behave altruistically.
Myers (2008) defined altruism as the
motivation of "an ultimate goal of selfless concern for another person".
Altruism and defending human rights can also
be for selfish reasons, such as recognition or promoting one's feeling of
self-worth. Interestingly, human right abusers have a part of their brain
missing. It makes one to wonder if regular human right offenders such as those
who resort to torture, violence or extremism lack grey matter in the 'right
"These are exciting results for us.
However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is
determined by biological factors alone," states Ernst Fehr, who led the
Gray matter volume is also influenced by
social processes. Further research is required to explore the possibility of
developing brain regions that control altruistic behavior, through proper
training or social norms.