Is Selfishness A Brain Defect?

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

120409-rhesus-monkey-130p.grid-4x2Duke neuroscientist, Michael Platt, has an intriguing theory. What if altruism isn’t just learned at your mother’s knee but is really a result of evolved brain chemistry? In a study he co-authored and published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience, Platt wondered why certain primates act unselfishly. Animal behaviorists have long known that monkeys will go without food rather than see a member of their species shocked, and mice will starve to avoid hurting other mice. Major news stories around the world  have told the tales of animals risking their own safety to protect humans and other animals. In one recent episode,  Binti Jua, a female gorilla saved a three-year-old boy from other gorillas when he fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Brookline Zoo.  In another, a dog in Chile dodged traffic on a busy freeway to drag his canine companion to safety after it  had been struck and rendered unconscious.

What isn’t known is the basis for this animal “morality.” Some scientists have theorized that this altruism is the result of emotions or simply instinct.  But Platt thinks the answer may lie deep in the recesses of the brain.  Using rhesus monkeys because of their  similarity to humans both anatomically and physiologically, Platt and his colleagues set up a simple experiment.  Monkeys were shown computer images which when correctly identified  resulted in a squirt of tasty juice coming their way. The monkeys quickly caught on that correct answers rendered a direct benefit. Then, the researchers changed the rules of the game. Instead of a correct answer getting the test subject a tasty squirt of juice, it resulted in one for their neighbor. Of course, the monkey had the choice to give no juice to their neighbor at all by simply refusing to play or answer incorrectly. The deciding monkeys consistently showed a pattern of doling out juice to their friends  And lest you think the other monkeys merely liked seeing the juice squirt anywhere, the experiment didn’t work when the scientists replaced the fellow primate with a bottle of juice as the beneficiary.

During the experiment, the scientists connected brain monitors to the monkeys to record any neuronal activity. What they found suggests that brain chemistry plays an important role in just how empathetic the primates behaved.  Platt concentrated his attention on a region of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex, which is known to play a role in reward processing. He found that when monkey benefited themselves,  neurons in a region called the anterior cingulate gyrus fired, but when the monkeys helped their friends different cells in the same area fired. Platt suggests that this rendering of pleasure from helping others may serve as the chemical basis for altruism. He even speculates that the finding has carry-over effects to human behavior.  Believing that the orbitofrontal cortex encodes vicarious experiences which account for happiness and sadness, he theorizes that “vicarious experience and reward is perhaps what actually drives giving behavior and perhaps drives charity in people.”

Could the lack of this neuronal activity account for selfishness?  If so, could its utter absence make a human a sociopath? The answer lies down the road but it could have a dramatic impact on the way we view human behavior and hence the consequences for that behavior.

Sources: msnbc and throughout

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

63 thoughts on “Is Selfishness A Brain Defect?

  1. Although I know you two weren’t acting in tandem, this piece and Mike’s on rugged individualism played quite well off of one another. Good show, Mark.

    • “Although I know you two weren’t acting in tandem, this piece and Mike’s on rugged individualism played quite well off of one another. Good show, Mark.”

      Gene,

      Thank you for remarking on this. It was either great minds think alike (ahem :))
      or fortuitous coincidence. There were times in answering comments that I wanted to quote Mark, but given some people’s suspicions, I felt we might be charged with collusion.

  2. Dredd,

    I did not look at Dr Jack. Have seen a vid with clips where his crushing intellect and arguments came out better. Here he was ranting.

    I thought the first comment from a study was enlightening. There was one word missing from the sentence on evolution. Should have added chemical high probability etc.

    However, claiming hard data as to evolution of ion pumps a hundred millon years back seems stretching it.
    We have no DNA older than 36,000 years. Of course if the ion pump is a precondition to lasting proof readable today in organic molecules which can be dated is another possibility.

    To get anyone to admit something new is very difficult. Like the woman physicist who suggested that hydrogen drove the sun. Whaaaaa, ridiculous.

    Back with more when have read more of your comment.
    Got anything else on abiotic evolution before the creation of life here.? Will read more now. That would mean that evolution of carbon was not just chance and had a reproduction value, in conventional evolution of life.

  3. I don’t know why it is assumed that in prehistory, all humans and even all humanoids were utterly selfish and there was no “altruism” going on. That is extremely unlikely. According to anthropologist Evelyn Reed, savage (that is pre-Barbarian, not “savage” as in “mean and violent”) societies were probably altruistic and in fact, there is evidence that some of those societies had elaborate and mandatory “gift rituals” that ranked as just as important to the group life as food gathering. In fact, the model for altruism is maternal care given a dependent infant, and that is the very foundation of all society, civilized and pre-civilized, and yes, even our technology-dominated society today. And that HAS to be hardwired and instinctive — I mean, it’s almost axiomatic.

  4. Dredd,

    You mean Jack as in Dr Jack Szotak (sp?). Well he made the statement concisely wishing people to differentiate. What he said later I don’t know.
    However there is in the study you cited the differentiation from chemically driven processes and evolutional selectivity. Most I liked the showing of how the basic functions developed in an inanimated life form.
    Growth, reproduction, process development with or with out natural selectivity come to mind.

    The functions of the cell are still unsolved. The speeds of movement is enormous. The speed of processes also incredibly fast. And how coordination, if there is any, is effected is as yet undetermined. I suspect that higher more complex molecules, intra-cell organs and processes are primarily chemically controlled. But evolution was definitely there selecting the winner. Even the development of lipid borne and water borne functions in the ports and the internal working is fascinating.

    An early Happy New Year, Abóut one hour left here.

  5. Dredd,

    Your citation of molecular machines broght a new thought to mind for me.

    Cells are nothing more than test tubes but who and why determines.
    OH yes this is only a variant of the factory analogue. But there they are fixed in the idea that somebody is directing the processes.

  6. Blouise,

    No despite all claims to the contrary, neither predeterminism or equivalent is fixed in advance. By whom? God? Mixing it up the old fellow.

    We still have a quantum world where each quantum step is not predetermined but can in total be predicted statistically, ie empirically.

    I suspect we will need an equivalent discovery in biotic and cell functions.
    This may be the result of converging processes: reductionism from cell forms. and synthesis from abiotic forms which have equivalent functions.

  7. Cavemen were more altruistic because they were more interdependent.
    But that does not eliminate hard wiring as a deciding and evolutionarily positive for selection to survive even today.

  8. idealist707 1, December 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Dredd,

    You mean Jack as in Dr Jack Szotak (sp?). Well he made the statement concisely wishing people to differentiate. What he said later I don’t know.
    However there is in the study you cited the differentiation from chemically driven processes and evolutional selectivity. Most I liked the showing of how the basic functions developed in an inanimated life form.
    Growth, reproduction, process development with or with out natural selectivity come to mind.

    The functions of the cell are still unsolved. The speeds of movement is enormous. The speed of processes also incredibly fast. And how coordination, if there is any, is effected is as yet undetermined. I suspect that higher more complex molecules, intra-cell organs and processes are primarily chemically controlled. But evolution was definitely there selecting the winner. Even the development of lipid borne and water borne functions in the ports and the internal working is fascinating.

    An early Happy New Year, Abóut one hour left here.
    =================================================
    Happy New Year to you too.

    I know it is difficult to understand that evolutionary theory is mostly composed of machine evolution.

    But 9.21 years of machine evolution took place prior to machines evolving into biological organisms some 3.54 billion years ago, that is, about 1 billion years after the machine Earth evolved.

    Yes, planets, like stars are big machines composed of little machines we call molecules and atoms.

    That is just the way it is.

    Pop scientists like to focus on biological evolution that began a few hundred thousand years ago (“monkeys became men”) probably because they were all teenagers or republicans once.😉

  9. Or because they are actual scientists and not extremists, they understand the difference between biology and chemistry, they know that not all interactive systems are machinery and they understand the use of metaphor.

  10. Apologies to all. My bad! Thought yesterday was New Years Eve, ie December had 30 days. So I run around with bated breath (tired cliché) shouting one day too early. I wondered, sitting those 7 hours in the ER, where were the usual drunks, assault victims, knifings (no guns), and misc nuts typical of NYE,

    Anyway, glad no one got mislead. Thanks MikeS for the kind wishes.

    Just so you know, it is always tomorrow in Australia (other side of dateline).

  11. Blouise,

    My apologies for the lecture. If (hah!) I had been in form, I would have recognized the irony in your post. Then again I may not have done so.

    Have always been gullible, and can’t read people when they use irony, although am aware of its use here. But Swedes are so stereotyped, a generalization.

    Excuses, excuses. You probably didn’t read it anyway.

  12. After 7 hours seeing the various sufferings in the ER, I get reminded of a recent observation.

    Don’t expect to wake up healthy and rising vigorously to greet your grandkids with pancakes.

    Some don’t, can’t and never will. Be glad that you can.

  13. idealist707 1, December 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Dredd,


    Got anything else on abiotic evolution before the creation of life here.?
    ===============================================
    That is the trip which is missing in the literature.

    My urgings are that we elaborate on our scientific hypotheses, theories, and laws, in accord with the majority of time evolution took place.

    We produce literature that deals with the major league.

    Which is, by a long shot (~10.21 billion years), the abiotic evolution that preceded carbon based biological evolution.

    Our default is to talk about the last 200,000 years within which our nemesis evolved (Meyr), which we currently call human intelligence.

    Why are we so proud of our nemesis?

    Love ya bro.

  14. Love back at you. Kindred seekers of reality based on observation.
    =====================================================

    “That is the trip which is missing in the literature.

    Really? Curious. Surely some physicists have remarked on the development order of things at opportune times. And that so many constants are just “so” is a subject of essays and books. I will mention a few paratmeters if you wish.

    My urgings are that we elaborate on our scientific hypotheses, theories, and laws, in accord with the majority of time evolution took place.

    Well, we feel that all was so simple for the majority, 10.2 x 10 *9 years, Worthy of consideration, which I have not until you mentioned it.

    We produce literature that deals with the major league.

    Which is, by a long shot (~10.21 billion years), the abiotic evolution that preceded carbon based biological evolution.

    Our default is to talk about the last 200,000 years within which our nemesis evolved (Meyr), which we currently call human intelligence.
    Some are venturing, both of us have mentioned a couple. Schostak and the earlier dating of inorganic processed leading to organic ones by some millions of years.

    Why are we so proud of our nemesis?
    For what reasons do you class it as a nemesis? Pride of the tool, and pride of place are both sins leading to bad things. But the tool is itself not a nemesis—-but then don’t really know what the term nemesis encompasses.

  15. See E.O. Wilson “The Social Conquest of Earth” – he says that in competition, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but altruistic groups beat selfish groups. He thinks there is a mathematical proof and has asked scientists to find it.

    Richard Dawkins thinks Wilson is wrong, but in his review of Wilson’s book, never addressed the mathematical proof, only said Wilson is wrong.

    for more info: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/aug/18/edward-wilson-harvard-biologist-interview

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