A new study is soon to be launched into the effects, if any, of meditation and likewise on altruistic behaviours. The study, to be conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison will use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to see the effects in the brain when acting on altruistic behaviours. They aim to see if the practice of such meditation can influence a person’s behaviour to promote altruistic acts (Rattue, 2012).
Let’s first consider what Altruism actually is. First described as the ‘self-sacrifice for the benefit of others’ by Auguste Comte in 1851, its given meaning was considered to be a rather extreme point of view. The now much preferred meaning given to Altruism would be a ‘behaviour that promotes the survival chances of others at a cost to one’s own’, and is used mainly amongst today’s scientific community (Altruists.org).
However some would suggest that Altruism is not at all possible and such acts exist as a means of benefiting one’s self. I refer to of course, as well as many others, Cialdini’s negative state relief model. Cialdini suggests that we in our minds weigh up the positives and negatives of helping someone and furthermore would only consider helping if there were no other alternative. Therefore only if the person is feeling a stress for observing someone that needs help and will only help if they feel that stress can’t be relieved without helping (C. Daniel Batson, 1989).
Contrary to this, some new research into altruism has shown that there were differences shown on an fMRI scan between brain activity when acting out altruistically and egoistically. This study, conducted at Duke University in 2007, invited 45 participants and observed them play a computer game where at points they would be rewarded monetarily for themselves, or for a chosen charity. fMRI scans taken as these activities took place showed that although they were expecting activity in the brains reward centres, they also found that another part of the brain was involved; this part of the brain, the pSTC (posterior superior temporal cortex), also appeared to be rather sensitive to the difference between acts of altruism and egoism (Science Daily, 2007).
Which brings us back nicely to look at the study this article discusses. The team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison expect to see a difference between altruistic and egoistic acts as in the Duke University study, however they also plan to change a person’s predisposition towards acting altruistically by introducing them to techniques such as ‘compassion meditation’. Using a combination of $1.7 million, more than 1000 participants, some randomly activated voice recordings and an fMRI scan, they hope to observe a correlation between acts of altruism and corresponding brain activity (Rattue, 2012).
Although with all things considered, it would seem that this study is a little far-fetched. That is to say that for a start, we cannot even be sure that there is a difference in the mind between altruistic and egoistic behaviours and for something so randomly placed and unpredictable, can it be measured effectively? How could this benefit society? We could all start recommending that people spend some time meditating on a regular basis to help improve social happiness, but further than this I do not see much else to propose from the results. It would be my opinion that this huge amount of money could be better spent in a more significant area of research.
Altruists.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.altruists.org/about/altruism/
C. Daniel Batson, J. G. (1989). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Negative-State Relief and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis, 6, 922-933.
Rattue, P. (2012, 02 04). Does A Lab-Measured Compassionate Brain Fare Well In Real Life?. Retrieved from Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/241161.php
Science Daily. (2007, 01 21). Activation Of Brain Region Predicts Altruism. Retrieved 02 02, 2012, from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070121162756.htm