Why are some people more empathic and generous than others? Research suggests that your brain may have a lot to do with it.
Is kindness all in your head? New research finds that the brain may hold the key.
In a study, people who rated themselves as more empathic learned to help others more readily than those with lower levels of empathy. They also showed more selective responding in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain responsible for modulating emotion while benefitting others.
Although most people are inclined to be helpful, there are considerable differences in individual’s capacity to be empathic or altruistic. Led by Dr. Patricia Lockwood at University College London in the UK, researchers sought to understand why some people are more readily willing and able to help others and why.
She and her colleagues asked 31 adults to take part in a reinforcement-learning task while undergoing brain scanning in an fMRI. The task involved choosing between one of two symbols – one symbol was associated with a high probability of reward (75%), and the other with a low probability. Learning about these probabilities occurred through trial and error.
These learning trials were divided into 3 categories: a reward for oneself, a reward for another, and no beneficiary. Researchers examined participants’ brain scans in each reward each condition to assess whether the behavior of those who rated themselves as more empathic differed from that of less empathic participants.
People Readily Learn Helping Behavior Participant’s performance revealed that people are more readily able to learn to make choices that benefit others compared to learning to benefit themselves. What’s more, people who rated themselves as empathic tended to learn to benefit others faster than less empathic participants.
Results also suggested substantial differences in both neural and behavioral responses to the reinforcement-learning task by empathy level. Specifically, empathic participants tended to exhibit more flexible use of the subgenual anterior cingulated cortex, which was the only part of the brain active when learning to help others. This suggests that this brain structure may be particularly attuned to acts of helping.
This study is the first to identify a distinct brain process for learning prosocial behavior. By better understanding how the brain works, we may gain insight into why some choose to help others, while others are antisocial.
Patricia L. Lockwood, Matthew A. J. Apps, Vincent Valton, Essi Viding, and Jonathan P. Roiser. Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy. PNAS, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1603198113