Altruism, and in particular what we might term “extraordinary altruism,” has longed puzzled many fields of science, including biology, psychology, and economics. The central question being this: why would a human being behave in an altruistic manner, especially to risk their life and/or endure pain for someone they don’t even know?

There is general agreement amongst scientists that the function of altruism is partly to promote the survival of our genes (by being kind to relatives) and in part to permit the exchange of favors (with the idea that we would get help some other time if we need it). However, more extreme altruism remains somewhat puzzling as it doesn’t satisfy either of those explanations. So Abagail Marsh, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Georgetown University, set out to investigate if the brains of extreme altruists might have observable differences from other brains and, in particular, if these differences might be the opposite of differences seen in the brains of psychopaths.

It turns out they do, indeed. Dr. Marsh and her team used structural and functional MRIs to compare the amygdalas of extraordinary altruists (altruistic kidney donors who volunteered to donate a kidney to an anonymous, non-related, other) to those who are not extraordinary altruists, and also to the brains of psychopaths, who behave in an opposite manner as someone who is altruistic, exhibiting little empathy or desire to do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves. The amygdala is a part of the brain that has been shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.

What Dr. Marsh and her colleagues discovered is that extraordinary altruists have significantly larger right amygdalas, and that it is, indeed, the inverse of the brains of psychopaths, whose right amygdalas, previous studies have shown, are smaller than average.

This study is interesting because it suggests that extraordinary altruism represents one end of a caring continuum we are all on, with psychopathy on the other end. It also supports the possibility of a neural basis for extraordinary altruism, and for altruism in general. In other words, we are all born, to a greater or lesser degree, hardwired to be kind to others. And while encouragement from our upbringing will help to enhance this propensity, some of our “goodness” is what we were born with.

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