Extreme altruism and the amygdala

Here’s some fun.  The Economist reported research on the brains of those who manifest extreme altruism, in this case by donating a kidney to a stranger.  Differences were found both in the structure and function of the amygdala as these people had larger amydalas on the right side and these were more active when viewing pictures of emotion laden faces.  Remember that the amygdala is central to processing emotions and the subsequent valence (positive or negative) of experience.


The article posited that these results suggested that those of extreme altruism were on the opposite end of the spectrum from psychopaths, whose amygdalas are smaller and less reactive to the emotions of others.  Maybe.  We humans are fond of patterns and continuums and suchlike.  I myself like dialectics.  In his book, the Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen contrasts psychopathy with autism spectrum.  So, without specifying a continuum, we have altruists, who feel and act for others even to their own detriment or risk, autists, who find the emotional coin of relationships mystifying, and psychopaths, who exploit others for their own gain regardless of the harm they inflict.  An extreme altruist was discussed in the post previous to this in Walt Whitman, who helped voluntarily the wounded and dying to the point of damaging his own health.  Autists can be brilliant people but lack the theory of mind needed to empathize with another’s emotions and the subsequent ability to relate skillfully.  They are not abusive or exploitative and indeed are quite rule bound and can show caring behaviors as they learn how.  Psychopaths, many of them at least, are quite skilled interpersonally; they can walk into a crowded room and within seconds discern who might be vulnerable to their manipulations and what might be obtained.  They know how to act to gain trust but they do not value trust except as an instrument of control.  Oh, and they care little for rules or social mores and they are less reactive emotionally to their own states and those of others.  The research here confirms that their amygdalas function at a lower level (continuum) or differently (non-continuum).

The Economist article asserts that we do not know why the amygdala on the right side should be larger and more reactive to others’ emotions.  Oops.  We do know that neurological lateralization extends down into the mid-brain and beyond and that the right side in humans and presumably other primates and even other mammals is specialized for monitoring the current situation, including especially emotional communication.  While we know that the left side is specialized for language, my thought is that at base it is specialized for a non-current situation or for information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, while psychopaths are very attuned to immediate social interaction, it might be that their processing is restricted to the more abstracted, displaced modality used for instrumental but not social behavior.  Analogously, autists show right sided learning disabilities, e.g., impaired common sense activities of daily living/management and difficulty processing the empathic flow in relationships, but their abilities to process abstracted, displaced information, especially patterns, can be gifted.

And then we have the altruists, whose awareness and valuing of others’ emotions and needs leads them to prosocial actions sometimes requiring personal sacrifice.  Actually I think we do this in small ways all the time–it is one of the great albeit rarely noticed features of our kind and of other kinds (think parenting up and down the evolutionary scale).  Fun, huh?

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