New Delhi: Few words are as beguiling as “philanthropy”. While it translates into “a large-hearted love for humanity”, research across a variety of disciplines—psychology, economics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology—over the last three decades suggests that this most noble of activities is predominantly the result of a uniquely wired brain that has been primed over millennia to preserve man’s best interests. Selfishly.
Helping, sharing and donating aren’t attributes unique to people. Dictyostelium mucoroides, a well-researched species of mould, has been shown to compromise its own well-being for a larger cause. When there’s a shortage of food, these unicellular organisms that normally exist as isolated amoeba, aggregate to become a multicellular entity even though such an act often starves and destroys certain individual mucoroida. A better known instance is that of honeybees that unflinchingly and suicidally sting predators when defending their hive.
While it isn’t explicitly clear what causes animals to behave so, biologists aver that much of the behaviour can be explained by genetics. The mucoroidei reproduce asexually and share almost all their genes with their progeny, while honey-bees are genetically closer to their siblings than progeny (and hence fiercely protective of their sibling-manufactured hives), partly because of the way their sex cells are fertilized during reproduction.
Humans, however, are almost uniquely capable of going out of their way for strangers and—sometimes—even without any obvious, personal benefit in sight; think, for instance, soldiers sacrificing themselves in a war.
This is what leads neuroscientists and psychologists to suggest that the key determining factor influencing people’s decisions to be altruistic or philanthropic is the complex structure of the brain.
While the primate brains of chimpanzees and baboons, which are known to be extremely social, have a cerebral cortex—a folded fleshy mass of gray matter that sits like a cap above the skull— those in human brains are substantially bigger. This region of the brain makes possible functions such as memory, reasoning, conscious thought and language, and are thus key to maintaining complex social relationships.
Nearly a century ago, George Barger and James Ewens at Wellcome Laboratories in London synthesised dopamine, a neurochemical that’s released when the brain is “rewarded”. Thus a variety of accomplishments, such as having mastered a poem, writing out a cheque to a voluntary organization and even indulging a craving for chocolate are accompanied by a chemical shot of pleasure—the mere memory of which, researchers say, could motivate you to repeat your action again.
“The brain is rigged,” said Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and whose research emphasis is on the psychological motivations that dictate people’s spending decision. “When we make a donation, however small, there’s a release of dopamine (a chemical that generates a burst of pleasure) and many of the activities that we spend time and money on are for dopamine fixes,” he said.
He said that such a system essentially came into being because humans rely on networks and social interaction rather than individual prowess. “Being good is hardwired. Though not everyone donates expecting immediate reciprocity, people unconsciously keep track. Other than rewards, these same chemicals play a role when humans punish cheats, or individuals, who receive favours but don’t give back,” he added.
Intriguingly, evidence for such behaviour comes from the emerging field of neuroeconomics, a field that combines economic theory with actual measurements of brain activity of people involved in such experiments.
One of the most popular brands of such experiments, or “games” as researchers call them, is the “ultimatum game” where two players interact to decide how to divvy up money given by an experimenter. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal.
Classical economic theory assumes people to be cold rationalists and reckons that any offer should be acceptable, as even a little money is better than no money. However, economists have frequently observed that grossly unfair offers, say a less than 70-30 split, are usually rejected.
In the last 30 years, when brain imaging technology has sufficiently improved to allow neuroscientists to actually observe neurological changes while people played such games, they found that injecting chemicals such as oxytocin (a “feel-good” neurochemical) prods people to make generous offers than those with normal oxytocin levels.
Also, players injected with serotonin—a depressant—rejected unfair offers far more than those with normal serotonin levels.
“Thus it’s quite evident that emotions play an extremely important role in decision making,” wrote economists Paul Zak, A.A. Stanton and S. Ahmadi in a 2007 paper published in the Public Library of Sciences journal.
However, direct evidence of the role of the brain in altruism came around the 1990s, and like several great discoveries in science, by accident. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his research team at the University of Parma, Italy, were studying motor neurons—nerve cells involved in signalling actions such as limb or eye movement—in the frontal cortex of macaques.
To do this, they wired tiny electrodes to monkeys so they could watch how particular hand movements—like a wave or a clasp— were initiated in the brain. In Rizolatti’s experiment, when a monkey picked up a peanut, the motor neuron expectedly fired. However, the same cell fired when a perfectly still monkey was watching a lab assistant pick up a peanut. Several experiments later—to test why a motor neuron fired when there was no motor action—revealed a whole class of brain cells or so called “mirror neurons” that were located in parts of the macaque brain that process both sensory information and calibrate emotions.
It was for the first time scientists had seen evidence of some kind of hard-wired neurological evidence for attributes such as empathy.
“If you look at the properties of mirror neurons, they’re involved obviously in empathy, involved in taking another person’s point of view,” neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran said in an earlier interview with Mint.
Ramachandran, who heads the Brain and Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego, goes to the extent of terming these neurons “Gandhi neurons”, speculating that having extremely altruistic or philanthropic individuals might have a better developed system of mirror neurons. This he adds hasn’t been soundly proved. “What we’re arguing is that there are deficient mirror neuron systems in psychopaths and people who kill, because they have less empathy for people. And maybe people such as (Mahatma) Gandhi and Mother Teresa and—and this is just pure speculation—have an enhanced mirror neuron system. Maybe we’d be able to train our mirror neuron system using biofeedback, making all human beings more empathetic and compassionate.”
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