Empathy and the generosity it sparks are essential human traits. Although scientists have investigated these behaviors in depth, the neural mechanisms beneath them are still not fully understood. Breaking research gives new clues.
Humans are complex animals living in a complex environment. Every day, our brain makes thousands of decisions, helping us navigate social challenges.
Sometimes we do things to benefit ourselves; other times, we decide to act in a way that benefits others.
Humans evolved to be social animals, and, in social groups, people who only look after themselves cannot thrive within the group. An individual needs to act in a way that allows them to survive, of course, but there also needs to be generosity.
Being generous involves an understanding of the other person's needs; this takes empathy - an ability to put one's self in another's shoes.
Showing empathy and acting upon it is an essential part of being human.
That being said, some individuals - those with psychopathy or other types of personality disorders - do not have this hardwired ability and desire to help others.
Understanding prosocial behavior
Recently, researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom decided to add to the current understanding of so-called prosocial behaviors and investigate the neurological origin of empathy and generosity.
Dr. Patricia Lockwood published her work this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Although people have a remarkable inclination to engage in prosocial behaviors, there are substantial differences between individuals.
Empathy, the capacity to vicariously experience and understand another person's feelings has been put forward as a critical motivator of prosocial behaviors, but we wanted to test why and how they might be linked."
Dr. Patricia Lockwood
To study this human trait, the researchers scanned participants using an MRI machine while they carried out tasks. The specific tasks were based on well-used models that test how people learn to benefit themselves. Participants had to work out which symbols they needed to press to bring themselves the biggest reward.
As a twist to the classic experiment, the participants also had to learn which symbols were more likely to give someone else a reward.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results showed that people learned to benefit themselves quicker than they learned to help others. Additionally, using the MRI scanner, the team pinpointed the region of the brain that was activated when carrying out actions that helped other people.
The subgenual anterior cingulate cortex
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is an area of the brain known to be involved in the control of a number of automatic processes, such as the regulation of blood pressure and heart rate. It is also thought to be important in higher level functions, including reward anticipation, impulse control, decision-making, and emotion.
When the participants were learning how to help others, a specific part of the ACC was activated called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC); this region was the only area to light up on brain scans, and it was not triggered while learning actions which favored the individual.
This implies that the sgACC is particularly tuned to controlling and monitoring generosity.
Interestingly, the team also found that the sgACC was not equally active in each of the scanned brains. Those who self-reported higher levels of empathy had higher activation levels, whereas individuals who did not activate it so readily, rated themselves as less empathic.
Although previous studies have highlighted certain, overlapping areas of the brain involved in empathy and prosocial behavior, this study adds a new level of specificity.
"This the first time anyone has shown a particular brain process for learning prosocial behaviors - and a possible link from empathy to learning to help others.
By understanding what the brain does when we do things for other people, and interpersonal differences in this ability, we are better placed to understand what is going wrong in those whose psychological conditions are characterized by antisocial disregard for others."
Dr. Patricia Lockwood
These findings are interesting in their own right, but they also hold potential for future psychiatric interventions. Because certain mental disorders involve a loss or lack of empathy, knowing which regions of the brain are likely affected could help in the design of more targeted drugs further down the line.