Scientists identify brain's 'generosity centre'
Published 15/08/2016 | 20:16
Whether you are a saint or a sinner may depend on a specific part of the brain, new research suggests.
Scientists have identified a region of the cerebral cortex they have dubbed the brain's "generosity centre".
Brain scans show that it is especially active in people with a more generous or "pro-social" mindset. These individuals also appear to have higher levels of empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
Participants who are naturally more selfish and less empathic show a lower degree of activity in the "generosity centre".
Lead scientist Dr Patricia Lockwood, from Oxford University, said: "This the first time anyone has shown a particular brain process for learning pro-social behaviours - 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 individual differences in this ability, we are better placed to understand what is going wrong in those whose psychological conditions are characterised by anti-social disregard for others."
Pro-social, "generous", behaviour is a fundamental part of being human and essential to community living.
But while most people show a natural inclination to be pro-social, some individuals are more giving than others. Why this should be so is still not fully understood, although empathy is thought to play a central role.
To investigate links between empathy and generosity the Oxford team set up an experiment in which 31 male volunteers played a computer game that involved learning to associate abstract symbols with money rewards.
Participants, who were all aged between 19 and 32, were given opportunities either to win cash for themselves or for another player.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that while people readily learned to make choices that benefited others, they were quicker at identifying symbols that rewarded themselves.
The MRI scans revealed one particular brain area that seemed to be involved in thinking generously by prioritising a good result for someone else.
Dr Lockwood said: "A specific part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) was the only part of the brain that was activated when learning to help other people. Put another way, the subgenual anterior cingulate seems to be especially tuned to benefiting other people."
However, the scans showed that the sgACC was not equally active in every volunteer.
"People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learned to benefit others faster than those who reported having lower levels of empathy," Dr Lockwood added.
"They also showed increased signalling in their subgenual anterior cingulate cortex when benefiting others."
The research may have implications for understanding what drives psychopaths and anti-social or criminal behaviour.
The scientists wrote: "Taken together, our findings reveal a computational link between pro-social learning and empathy in humans and therefore pave the way to characterise atypical pro-social interactions in those with disorders of social cognition and behaviour."