Neuroscientist Jorge Moll explores the biology of altruism

The root of altruism has always seem to confound philosophers. Why do we give? What motivates us to give? How does it affect us? Neuroscientists have been studying brain activity to figure out the answers themselves, and their findings may come as a surprise, refer here.

Altruism, according to some neuroscientists, may be biological. Researchers at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan did an experiment on rats showing that a rat will forego chocolate 50 – 80% of the time to save another rat. To further this theory, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, conducted a 2006 experiment on humans in which 19 subjects were given $128 to give to their charity of choice (or not give). The studies found that when the subjects gave altruistically, a part of their brain lit up, a part usually associated with food or sex.

The question of “survival for the fittest” or “we do things to ensure our own survival” conflicts with the act of helping others. Helping others usually incurs personal or financial costs. Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman’s 2006 findings, however, seem to shed light on this contradiction. Their paper, “Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation”, offers startling evidence on the biological basis of selfless giving and begs the question: If the act of giving does provide a kind of physical satisfaction, then altruism isn’t so selfless, after all. Another look into morality is explored in Jorge Moll’s paper, “Morals and the human brain: a working model”. The paper argues that morality is evolutionary and hardwired into the brain. Explore more here.

Jorge Moll is the director of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education. He graduated from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 1994 and completed his Neurology residency there. He received his PhD in Experimental Pathophysiology from the University of Sao Paulo, Faculty of Medicine, more information here.

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