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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Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.


     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.


    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence


      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.


      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]


      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.


        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.


          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]



          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via


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