Researchers Study Human Brains To See If We’re Born To Be Selfish, Results Are Surprising

Researchers Study Human Brains To See If We’re Born To Be Selfish, Results Are Surprising

“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King puts the choice before all of us between altruism and selfishness. The choice, it may seem, may be easier than first thought. A recent study published in in the journal Human Brain Mapping, reveals altruism may in fact be rooted in the brain.

The study’s co-author Leonardo Christov-Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Institute 6of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said “Our altruism may be more hardwired than previously thought“.


The ramifications of the findings could be of great importance, as Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA psychiatry professor and senior author of the study notes that it could help make people behave in less selfish ways.

“This is potentially groundbreaking,” he said.

The first study

Christov-Moore and Marco Iacoboni recruited 20 participants to undertake the study. The brain activity of all of the participants was monitored using a functional magnetic resonance machine (fMRI). The participants were shown a video of a hand being poked with a pin and were then asked to imitate photographs of different faces. Each of the faces displayed distinct emotions, for example: happiness, sadness, excitement and anger.

It was found that the amygdala, somatosensory cortex and anterior insula are associated with experiencing emotion, pain and imitating others. Regulating behavior and controlling impulses was seen to be controlled by two distinct areas in the prefrontal cortex.


The next part of the study involved a separate activity. This activity required the participants to play a game, known as the dictator game, where participants are given a specific amount of money which they can choose to keep for themselves or share with a stranger. In this particular study the participants were given $10. The game consisted of 24 rounds. The strangers that were shown to the participants were all Los Angeles residence whose real income and ages were used. Their names were changed for the purpose of privacy.

Findings of the first study

Once the first part of the study was completed the researchers compared the brain scans with the amount of money each of the participants chose to give away.

One-third of the participants were the most generous. They showed the strongest responses in the areas of the brain associated with emotion, perceiving pain and imitating others. On average this group gave away around 75 percent of their money.

On the other hand, the participants with the most activity in the prefrontal cortex proved to be the tightest with their money. They only gave away $1 to $3 per round.


Researchers labeled the desire to share with others as the mirroring impulse or “prosocial resonance”. This impulse is thought to provide the impetus behind altruism. Christov-Moore said. “The more we tend to vicariously experience the states of others, the more we appear to be inclined to treat them as we would ourselves.” 

The second study

The second study, published in the journal Social Neuroscience scientists looked at the prefrontal cortex and sought to explore how the brain works when people are involved in decision making. 58 people participated in the study; 20 of these participants were involved in the first study.

All participants underwent non-invasive procedures that temporarily weakened certain areas of brain activity.

The results of the second study

Participants proved to be 50 percent more generous when activity in their prefrontal cortex was weakened. Christov-Moore explained that by reducing the power of the prefrontal cortex people were free to empathize and feel compassion for others.


He elaborated as follows: “participants would have been expected to give according to need, but with that area of the brain dampened, they temporarily lost the ability for social judgments to affect their behavior. By dampening this area, we believe we laid bare how altruistic each study  participant naturally was.”


The findings these two studies are eye opening. We, as human beings, may be more selfless and altruistic than many of us may assume. The studies show that James R. Ozinga may be right in saying,

“Altruism is an instinct for survival that may be in our genes–an internal force for goodness in everyone that  begins with birth.”

Featured photo credit: The Humanist via


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Rebecca Beris

Rebecca is a wellness and lifestyle writer at Lifehack.

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Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]


Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.


In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]



Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.


Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.


In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.


With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via


[1] US National Library of Medicine: Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain
[2] Daily Mail: Nursing a broken heart? How taking a paracetamol could dull the pain of rejection
[3] Mother For Life: Oxytocin’s Role
[4] Psychology Today: Facebook and Your Brain
[5] Alex Korb: The Upward Spiral

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