Brain holds the clue for your social behaviour

Published: Thursday 15 February 2007

ARE you giving or selfish in nature? Researchers at the Duke University Medical Centre have discovered that activation of a particular brain region predicts whether people tend to be selfish or altruistic.

"This may give clues to the origins of important social behaviours like altruism," says Scott A Huettel, a neuroscientist.

The results will be published in the February 2007 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience. Altruism describes the tendency to act in ways that put the welfare of others ahead of their own. Why some people choose to act altruistically is unclear, says lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley.

In the study, researchers scanned brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. In both cases, success in the game earned money for a charity of the study participant's choice. The researchers then scanned the participants' brains using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, which uses harmless magnetic pulses to measure changes in oxygen levels that indicate nerve cell activity.

The scans revealed that the posterior superior temporal sulcus was activated to a greater degree when the mind is trying to figure out social relationships.This region lies in the top and back portion of the brain.

The researchers then characterised the participants based on their responses about how often they engage in helping behaviour and compared the scans with their estimated level of altruistic behaviour. The scans showed that increased activity in posterior superior temporal sulcus strongly predicted a person's likelihood for altruistic behaviour.

The scientists feel this may also lead to further understanding of disorders such as autism or antisocial behaviour that are characterised by deficits in interpersonal interactions.

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