ZURICH - Unlike their own money, there's something penny-pinchers have less of than spendthrifts: grey matter -- at least in a certain region of their brain. Researchers from Switzerland's University of Zurich led by Ernst Fehr, director of the department of economics, concluded that thevolume of grey matter housed at the junction of the two brain lobes indicated people's readiness to help other people out.
Participants to the study -- the results of which were published in the magazine Neuron -- were asked to share money with people they did not know.
The participants always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. Such a sacrifice can be deemed altruistic because it helps someone else at one's own expense, thus showing that participants were able to put themselves in someone else's shoes and understand their thoughts and feelings.
While they were busy dividing their loot, the team of researchers monitored their brain activity, and measured the volume of grey matter. The results showed a difference in size in the region of the brain located behind the ear -- between parietal and temporal lobes.
Brain scans also indicated that for Scrooges, this particular area was very active even when dealing with small amounts of money -- whereas for the Mother Teresa types, the region was only activated during major exchanges.
The researchers concluded that the more active the participants' grey matter was, the closer they were to reaching the limits of their altruism. The Swiss team concluded that brain activity in that region of the brain means that the individual is trying to "overcome the natural selfishness of man."
This is the first time that a connection is found between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior, says Ernst Fehr. "That said, one should by no means jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone," Fehr said.
The volume of grey matter is also defined by social processes, he says. The results leave open the question whether it is possible to stimulate the development of brain areas responsible for people's generosity.
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