Sociality, cooperation and “prosocial” behaviors are the foundation of human society (and of the extraordinary development of our brain) and yet, taken individually, people often show huge variation in terms of altruism/egoism, both among individuals and in the same individual at different moments in time. What causes these differences in behavior? An answer may be found by observing the activity of the brain, as was done by a group of researchers from SISSA in Trieste (in collaboration with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, HCI lab, of the University of Udine). The brain circuits that are activated suggest that each of the two behavior types corresponds to a cognitive analysis that emphasizes different aspects of the same situation.
Silani and colleagues were able to see that in the brain of the tested subjects significantly different brain circuits are activated during the two types of behavior (selfish/altruistic). In the first case the most active area was the “salience network” (anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex) whereas the most intensely involved structures in altruistic behavior were the prefrontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction.
“The salience network, which serves to increase the “conspicuity” of stimuli for the cognitive system, could make the dangers of the situation more apparent to the subject, leading the individual to behave in a selfish manner. Conversely, the areas that are most active when a subject decides to behave altruistically are the ones that the scientific literature commonly associates with the ability to take another person’s point of view, which would therefore make the subject more empathic and willing to act for the benefit of others.”