Friday, October 31, 2014

Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists.

I pass on this fascinating piece from Marsh et al., who find that a larger than average size of the right amygdala in extreme altruists who are very responsive to fearful faces is the opposite of the smaller than average size and reduced responsiveness found in psychopaths who are usually callous and antisocial:
In this study, we used structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess a population of extraordinary altruists: altruistic kidney donors who volunteered to donate a kidney to a stranger. Such donations meet the most stringent definitions of altruism in that they represent an intentional behavior that incurs significant costs to the donor to benefit an anonymous, nonkin other. Functional imaging and behavioral tasks included face-emotion processing paradigms that reliably distinguish psychopathic individuals from controls. Here we show that extraordinary altruists can be distinguished from controls by their enhanced volume in right amygdala and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results mirror the reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions observed in psychopathic individuals. Our results support the possibility of a neural basis for extraordinary altruism. We anticipate that these findings will expand the scope of research on biological mechanisms that promote altruistic behaviors to include neural mechanisms that support affective and social responsiveness.

1 comment:

  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.