The science behind why our brains make us cooperate (or disagree)

Studies from neuroscience highlight how the brain both helps with and prevents collaboration.

  • Neuroscientists identify the parts of the brain that affect our social decision-making.
  • Guilt has a large affect on social interactions, find the researchers.
  • To find ways to cooperate, people need to let go of fear and anxiety, suggest studies

Why do we decide to work on a project or pursue a goal with someone? Or why do we treat some people like there's no way we can find any common language? Neuroscience says that the human brain contains underlying causes to all human cooperation and social decision-making.

One difficulty in studying human behavior is that it's hard to record brain activity while the behavior is happening. You don't see many people outfitted with MRIs as they confront each other in the ebb and flow of daily life. But a new slate of advanced devices allowed neuroscientists a greater peek behind the mind's curtain. Studies presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience offered a variety of explanations for our behavior with respect to others.

What the scientists found is that a wide array of neural circuits are engaged when we interact with others socially. Research on mice showed that when an area of the hippocampus, which is responsible for our memories, is stimulated, aggression increases. This suggests that memories can impact social aggression.

Such a conclusion gels with our experience. Memories of a past wrong often inform our actions. It follows also that for aggression to be minimized, memories should not play such a strong role in how we make decisions. In reality, of course, that is a hard goal to achieve for some.

Another area of the brain that affects our social life is the amygdala, the gray matter present in each cerebral hemisphere that impacts our emotions, especially fear. Researchers found that neuronal activity in the amygdala of primates is involved in predicting choices made by a partner. That suggests how this part of the brain has an impact on our observational learning and decision-making in social situations.

Lest you think humans are driven by altruistic motives during games, neuroscientists also learned that strategic thinking rather than empathy is an important piece of the puzzle that's responsible for how we make decisions with respect to others.

Once we are already working with a person, research has shown that the neural activity in the primary motor cortices of monkeys performing a social task can become highly synchronized. This area of the brain relates information about the task but also makes note of how close the two primates are to each other.

Psychiatry and neuroscience Professor Robert Greene from the University of Texas, confirmed that "we now see evidence of shared and interactive neuronal activity between social partners that extends to such things as cooperative behavior and learning and decision-making."

Notably, a study from 2011 by a team of University of Arizona researchers, found another key aspect that drives human cooperation (or lack thereof) - guilt. By using fMRI imaging on participants playing economic games, the scientists discovered much activity in areas of the brain involved in guilt-related behaviors. This was particularly so when the subjects decided to return money expected by hypothetical investors. When the participants decided not to return the money, the reward center of the brain lit up.

This means that two different neural structures are involved when we ponder whether to meet someone's expectations. Guilt has significant influence on the decision to cooperate with someone. Of course, as the researchers also showed, some people are more affected by feelings of guilt than others.

Guilt can also drive our feelings of moral outrage, in a fact that explains why much of our interaction on social media often devolves into anger rather than a desire to collaborate. A 2017 study from psychology professors Dr. Zachary Rothschild from Bowdoin College and Dr. Lucas Keefer from the University of Southern Mississippi linked feelings of guilt to making people angrier, causing a desire to punish third parties. In particular, American subjects of the study who read that Americans were responsible for driving climate change (rather than, for example, the Chinese) were more likely to get outraged with "multinational oil corporations". Another reason for that, as the researched uncovered, moral outrage makes you feel less guilty and more moral.

How do we get beyond some of the instinctual responses of our brain that may prevent us from cooperating with others? In a video for Big Think, Sarah Ruger, the director of Free Expression, at the Charles Koch Institute, highlights the work of neuroscientist Dr. Beau Lotto, who suggests that awe and play "can cause people to let go of their fear, let go of their anxiety so that they enter a mental state where they're capable of being curious and entertaining a new experience." Check out her video here:

When we encounter disagreeable ideas and situations where we just don't agree with someone, we don't often think about our brain's role in our ultimate reaction to the situation. But if we are mindful of the processes that take place, we should be able to take a larger view and find the courage to get past the sticking points, moving towards cooperation.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.

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High-fat diets change your brain, not just your body

Unhealthy diets cause the part of your brain responsible for appetite to become inflamed, encouraging further eating and obesity.

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Mind & Brain
  • Anyone who has tried to change their diet can tell you it's not as simple as simply waking up and deciding to eat differently.
  • New research sheds light on a possible explanation for this; high-fat diets can cause inflammation in the hypothalamus, which regulates hunger.
  • Mice fed high-fat diets tended to eat more and become obese due to this inflammation.

Your wardrobe won't be the only thing a bad diet will change in your life — new research published in Cell Metabolism shows that high-fat and high-carbohydrate diets physically change your brain and, correspondingly, your behavior. Anyone who has tried to change their diet can tell you that it's far more challenging than simply deciding to change. It could be because of the impact high-fat diets have on the hypothalamus.

Yale researcher Sabrina Diano and colleagues fed mice a high-fat, high-carb diet and found that the animals' hypothalamuses quickly became inflamed. This small portion of the brain release hormones that regulate many autonomic processes, including hunger. It appears that high-fat, high-carb diets create a vicious cycle, as this inflammation caused the mice to eat more and gain more weight.

"There are specific brain mechanisms that get activated when we expose ourselves to specific type of foods," said Diano in a Yale press release. "This is a mechanism that may be important from an evolutionary point of view. However, when food rich in fat and carbs is constantly available it is detrimental."

A burger and a side of fries for mice

Chicken Nuggets

Photo by Miguel Andrade on Unsplash

The main driver of this inflammation appeared to be how high-fat diets changed the mice's microglial cells. Along with other glial cells, microglia are a kind of cell found in the central nervous system (CNS), although they aren't neurons. Instead, they play a supporting role in the brain, providing structure, supplying nutrients, insulating neurons, and destroying pathogens. Microglia work as part of the CNS's immune system, seeking out and destroying foreign bodies as well as plaques and damaged neurons or synapses.

In just three days after being fed a high-fat diet, the mice's microglia activated, causing inflammation in the hypothalamus. As a result, the mice started to eat more and became obese. "We were intrigued by the fact that these are very fast changes that occur even before the body weight changes, and we wanted to understand the underlying cellular mechanism," said Diano.

In mice fed with a high-fat diet, the researchers found that the mitochondria of the microglia had shrunk. They suspected that a specific protein called Uncoupling Protein 2 (UCP2) was the likely culprit for this change, since it helps to regulate the amount of energy microglia use and tends to be highly expressed on activated microglia.

To test whether UCP2 was behind the hypothalamus inflammation, the researchers deleted the gene responsible for producing that protein in a group of mice. Then, they fed those mice the same high-fat diet. This time, however, the mice's microglia did not activate. As a result, they ate significantly less food and did not become obese.

An out-of-date adaptation

When human beings did not have reliable access to food, this kind of behavioral change would have been beneficial. If an ancient human stumbled across a high-fat, calorically dense meal, it would make sense for that individual to eat as much as they could, not knowing where it's next meal would come from.

But there were no Burger Kings during the Pleistocene. Humanity has been extraordinarily successful in changing its environment, but our genome has yet to catch up. The wide availability of food, and especially high-fat foods, means that this adaptation is no longer a benefit for us.

If anything, research such as this underscores how difficult it is to really change bad habits. A poor diet isn't a moral failing — it's a behavioral demand. Fortunately, the same big brains that gave us this abundance of food can also exert control over our behavior, even if those brains seem to be working against us.

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