Altruism, Gray Matter, and the Brain

Links have been made between the gray matter of the brain and acts of altruism.
Altruism, Gray Matter, and the Brain
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Yamila Papa

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Altruism can be defined as the constant concern for the needs of others. In other words, doing everything possible so that others enjoy well-being and get what they need.

Altruism is present in culture, education, and religion, as well as in the brain. In the case of animals, for example, it’s carried out when one of the specimens is willing to sacrifice itself for the good of the herd.

Pure altruism means sacrificing something, be it time, wealth, energy, or knowledge, without seeking any kind of reward or compensation in return. Indeed, no benefit, direct or indirect, is sought by these kinds of acts.

Altruistic behavior within the animal kingdom increases the chances of others surviving at the cost of reducing one’s own chances of surviving.

What makes us altruistic?

Hand releasing butterflies as a sign of altruism

Some people are the opposite of selfish. They give to everyone and even offer what they don’t have for the good of others. Research has shown that social class, level of education, gender, and income can explain why we may be altruistic or selfish.

One more fundamental aspect of altruism concerns the brain structure. It seems that the brain doesn’t just modify abilities or personality, as was previously thought. In fact, a Swiss research team led by Professor Ernst Fehr concluded that there’s a strong connection between brain anatomy and altruistic attitudes.

Development and conclusions of the study

In this study, the participants were divided into two groups. They had the option of sacrificing part of their money to benefit another person. This action is considered to be altruistic. The studies revealed some differences. Some of the participants were never willing to give money, others considered it, and a third sector gave without hesitation.

Woman helping with altruism

What was the reason for these differences? It might be thought to be linked to education, need, or a sense of community. However, the study revealed that a certain part of the brain links the ability to empathize with the feelings of others. It’s the part where the temporal and parietal lobes are located.

Without a doubt, altruism is related to this ability. Thus, the researchers suspected that the differences between the three groups were related to that portion of the brain. The hypothesis they tested was that those who behave more altruistically have a greater amount of gray matter at the junction between these lobes.

The participants showed different brain activities when deciding whether or not they wanted to share the money. The region of the brain located behind the ears was activated when the cost of altruistic behavior was low, as in the case of the most selfish. On the contrary, in altruistic individuals, when the cost of their behavior was high, this region became more active. It signifies that, when individuals have the ability to give something, this part of the brain works harder.

According to scientists, this happens because there’s a greater need to overcome the natural tendency to egocentrism, typical of today’s society, or the fact of worrying about oneself.

Other factors that influence altruism

Ernst Fehr indicated that the results were interesting, although no single conclusion should be drawn. Therefore, altruistic behavior isn’t determined solely by brain or biological factors. Furthermore, gray matter volume can be influenced by different social processes.

For example, being surrounded by charitable people, with the habit of donating or helping others, will increase the possibility of you being altruistic as well. If, on the other hand, you live in an environment of selfishness, of thinking only of yourself and not giving anything to the other, this will also influence your decisions and attitudes. As we mentioned earlier, altruism isn’t only related to the gray matter of the brain but there are several influencing factors.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.