From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Altruism neurons: Monkey see, monkey do what?

Rhesus Monkey (by Einar Fredricksen)
The Dalai Lama once said:  There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies.  My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.

Therefore, if one explores the territory that lies between the two temples of the skull, the "Holy Grail" of kindness might be discovered somewhere within the brain.  At least that's what Duke University neuroscientist Michael Platt seems to be thinking. Co-author of a study that was published in a December 2012 issue of Nature Neuroscience on the neural roots of altruism,  Platt came up with some interesting speculations concerning charitable behavior.

He wonders whether "vicarious experience and reward is perhaps what actually drives giving behavior [in monkeys] and perhaps drives charity in people."  This tentative conclusion is derived from his laboratory observations of rhesus monkeys.  Platt noticed that
when these monkeys clearly understood their choices between giving themselves a squirt of juice, giving another monkey a squirt of juice, or giving an inanimate object a squirt of juice – they preferred giving themselves juice over giving another monkey juice, but also preferred giving another monkey juice over giving an inanimate object juice.

Platt also observed that the same region (the anterior cingulate gyrus) of the brain would respond whether the monkeys gave themselves or other monkeys juice (although different neurons within this region were involved for each of these two choices). Live Science reports that this "same brain region has been implicated in other social processes" such as human empathy when a romantic partner is pinched.  This region of the brain might thus be somehow able to "encode vicarious experiences when others are happy or sad."

Whether we're kind to others because it's vicariously pleasurable - or whether we're kind to others because
it's ethically called for - the result can certainly be a more peaceful world for humans, monkeys and all other sentient beings.


Copyright January 6, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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