Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Brain Scientists Locate Home of Altruism

• July 11, 2012 • 9:00 AM

Swiss researchers report a connection between the size and activity of one specific part of the brain and the willingness to engage in selfless acts.

Any panhandler will tell you of the importance of staking out the best street corner. But new research suggests that in making the choice to give money to a stranger, the intersection that matters most is one within our brains.

It’s called the right temporoparietal junction (or TPJ for short). Along with many other crucial functions, this neural crossroads gives us the ability to understand the perspectives of others—a prerequisite for empathy.

Swiss scholars report they have found a strong connection between the TPJ and a person’s willingness to engage in selfless acts.

“The structure of the TPJ strongly predicts an individual’s set point for altruistic behavior, while activity in this brain region predicts an individual’s acceptable cost for altruistic actions,” reports lead author Yosuke Morishima of the Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research at the University of Zurich’s Department of Economics.

Writing in the journal Neuron, Morishima and his colleagues describe an experiment in which 30 “normal, healthy adults” played a series of games while their brains were being scanned. The researchers measured the size of each person’s TPJ, as well as fluctuations in its level of activity, during the course of the experiment.

“In each trial,” they note, “subjects faced a binary choice in which they would increase or decrease their partner’s monetary payoff.” The cost to the participant of helping their partner (who was anonymous) varied from trial to trial.

In their key finding, the researchers found a strong association between altruistic behavior and the volume of gray matter in a person’s TPJ. (Gray matter refers to the darker tissue of the brain, which consists mainly of nerve cell bodies.) In short, those with bulkier TPJs were more willing to do nice things for strangers.

This region of the brain was most intensely active when the participants faced tough decisions—that is, during trials when they could choose to act altruistically, but only at a high price to themselves. This provided further evidence that the TPJ plays a key role in how such decisions get made.

These findings “provide a plausible biological account of the stability of altruistic preferences,” the researchers write. Big-time philanthropists like Bill Gates probably have robust TPJs; your miserly Uncle Fred, not so much.

As senior study author Ernst Fehr noted in an e-mail exchange, a tendency toward altruistic behavior most likely develops “through appropriate training or social practices” during childhood or adolescence. That’s the period when the brain is rapidly developing, and the volume of one’s TPJ is still in flux.

That said, Fehr added that the brain “keeps some plasticity and can also be shaped as an adult.” This suggests we are not complete prisoners of our neurobiology.

So can someone who wants to be a more altruistic person do so by consciously overriding one’s self-oriented impulses? Can we re-train this part of the brain?

“It has not yet been proved,” Fehr replied, “but my conjecture is that it is not impossible.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.