Altruism

Making Assumptions

I've been thinking a lot this week about assumptions.  Especially when it comes to trying to study bold, complicated and human constructs like love, empathy and creativity in the brain.

It started a few weeks ago.  I was talking with a neuroscientist about various brain states linked to the creative process.  He told me simply, "This is a place where we would benefit from asking more concrete questions."

Later, when our conversation moved on to my background, DIRTY MINDS and the research I highlighted into the neuroscience of love and sex, I quipped, "This is another place where scientists might benefit from asking more concrete questions." 

Let me explain.  I don't say this to discount any of the fantastic research done so far.  We all have to start somewhere--and many of the studies into these complex topics are both elegant and thought-provoking.  But even if we ignore the whole notion of what a brain scan can really tell us and whether fMRI set-ups provide any ecological validity, there remains an assumption--a rather big assumption--that these paradigms are actually measuring the things we think they are measuring.  We have to take a leap of faith that looking at a photo of your partner constitutes "love," that asking someone to riff a bit on a piece of music amounts to "creativity."

Take a study that was flying around the Internet this week on altruism.  Headlines proclaimed things like, "Brain Scientists Locate Home of Altruism." Even the press release for the actual study said that they were first to discover a link between brain anatomy and altruistic behavior.

In the study itself, researchers Ernst Fehr and Yosuke Morishima asked participants to divide money between themselves and an anonymous other person.  They suggest that if the person was willing to sacrifice some of that money for the other person, they were acting altruistically. While it is interesting to note that some people always share money (and others never do), and that is linked to more gray matter, is divvying up a few Euros really the practice of "unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others?" And then, in the context of that assumption, can we really say that the brain differences observed show us the neural substrates of something as complicated as altruism?

Like creativity and love, altruism has been something that has been studied extensively using softer, social science measures in the past.  Many of the conclusions drawn from those studies have stuck with us, become a sort of "truth," and now color how scientists design today's neurobiological and neuroimaging studies.  So the more I read about the seats of love, lust, altruism, empathy and the like, I think of my initial conversation with that neuroscientist and wonder what we might find if we were a little less ambitious and focused on more concrete questions.

What do you think? 

Credit:  jangstudio/Shutterstock.com

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