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Hacking Altruism in the Brain for Global Crises

By Yunmiao Wang

Image courtesy of Pixabay

This seemingly never-ending pandemic reminds me of a Chinese folktale: 

The Harvest Festival is around the corner, and the village leader asks each household to contribute some wine to the barrel so that everyone can celebrate the fruitful year together. A barrel is placed at the center of the village, and people pour their homemade wine into it without any supervision. At the night of the celebration, the village leader raises a glass in a toast to the community. Everyone cheers and drinks the wine. Some people frown, and many take another sip to verify their suspicion. It is not long before everyone realizes what they are tasting is as bland as water.

The wine that we long for would be the day when our life returns back to normal. The plain water that we actually receive, however, is the reality where the number of COVID cases is still soaring. While there are many who suffer both physically and mentally by following a strictly socially-isolated lifestyle and taking preventative measures, the efforts are disproportionately diluted by those who live as if the deadly virus does not exist. It is as if COVID-19 has conducted a nation-wide social experiment on game theory, in which a collective effort could end the pandemic in no time whereas incohesive behaviors lead to an impasse. 

The story warns the social consequences of one’s selfishness and unwillingness to sacrifice. However, instead of public shaming or pointing fingers, as we have seen the negative impact of this practice in the debate of wearing masks, is it possible to promote altruistic behaviors in face of global crises such as a pandemic? 

Altruism, behavior that benefits others usually at the cost of oneself, is not a uniquely human characteristic. The renowned book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, published in 1974, delves into widespread altruism in animals from a perspective of evolution and genetics. Based on the idea of “selfish” genes or rather “immortal” genes, the act of helping others is driven by “urges” of genes to be passed on through generations. According to Dawkins, we as individuals, are nothing but survival machines programmed to increase the likelihood of genes. This concept helps explain selfless behaviors towards offspring and siblings. Aside from kin selection, it also makes sense of self-sacrifice that benefits others who are not necessarily related, which might increase the survival of self or genetically related individuals in the long run. While it is difficult to link genes to complex behaviors, twin studies have also supported the idea that altruism is heritable.1,2,3 Despite the ultimate motive of altruistic behaviors, the evolutionary view of altruism suggests that we are hard-wired by nature with an altruistic tendency. 

For some, the concept that our actions are governed by some non-sentient molecules could lead to pessimism about humanity. Similar to most nature vs. nurture debates, however, genes are likely only half of the story. The environmental evidence shows promise that altruism can be learned. We see extreme sacrifices that lead to loss of lives that could not simply be explained by evolution. After the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear power plant, Japanese seniors volunteered to participate in the cleanup, which was known to be a suicidal mission. During the current global pandemic, numerous frontline health workers sacrifice their lives to save others, and COVID patients with severe illness participate in risky trials. Studies have shown that differences in culture and family dynamics both greatly lead to variabilities on the selfless-selfish spectrum.4,5 In other words, altruism, to some extent, is also a learned behavior that is hugely impacted by the environment. Several studies have indicated that children from cultures that focus on individualism show a much lower percentage of altruistic behaviors than those from more cooperative cultures.6,7  

Image courtesy of Pixabay
As a result of both genetic composition and environmental impact, our brains are wired toward altruism. Much remains unknown about the underlying neural mechanisms of prosocial and individualistic behaviors. Scientists from interdisciplinary fields, such as neuroscience, social sciences, and economics, have all long been trying to solve the puzzle. Variations of economic games such as the public goods game8 combined with neural imaging methods such as fMRI have been widely used as measurements of altruism and other abilities closely related to altruism including empathy and social decision making.9,10,11 In a classic public goods game, the numeric value of how much one is willing to donate allows an indirect measurement of altruism-related abilities in experimental settings. Its correlation to brain activity further reveals brain regions such as the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and striatum that might play a role in the decision-making process of selfless or selfish behaviors. 9,11,12,13,14  

It is worth noting that altruism, a complex concept of belief or behavior, involves more than one brain area or circuit. Such a complicated process involves computation of the social value and execution of the behavior, as well as feedback to the reward system. One way to encourage prosocial behaviors could be through changing how social values are encoded in the brain. Shifting cultural representations from individualism to collectivism could be an effective but not immediate measure to promote selfless behaviors. Pro-social education in both school settings and family settings, especially during critical periods of child development, should also be a priority. However, cultural changes and policy changes are slow and often face consistent resistance. In a situation such as a pandemic or global warming, society requires expedited changes that cannot wait for decades. What can we do to change behaviors of a large population in the face of emergencies without years of battles? 

We can draw inspiration from the philosophical argument that true altruism does not exist. For those who do not believe in its existence, true altruism is defined as an action with no desire of personal gain. By this definition, the pursuit of feeling pleasant or avoidance of feeling unpleasant is considered as a gain. However, the lack of desire would lead to no motivation of any actions at all. Despite the tangible benefits of helping others, the reward feedback is a key internal motive that drives the action. 

Can we instead “hack” the reward system in the brain to increase altruism? The interaction between dopaminergic circuits and social neuropeptides including oxytocin and vasopressin has been shown to play a role in social behavior including altruism in humans.15,16,17 Genetic variation in dopaminergic neurotransmission has also been linked to the selfless-selfish spectrum.16 Moral neuroenhancement that manipulates the dopaminergic system could be a potential way to encourage prosocial behavior.18 

Image courtesy of Pixabay

One of the major forms of neuroenhancement is brain stimulation. Despite the increasing hype about brain machine interface (BMI) fueled by Neuralink, the invasive technology is far less than perfect. While an implant could yield better precision at dialing up the reward-related brain regions, neither our understanding of the brain nor the technology is there yet. The neuroethical concerns of BMI relating to privacy, personhood and agency is a whole topic in itself (link to a previous blog post). A more viable form of neuroenhancement is the pharmacological approach, which achieves neuromodulation on a broader but less precise scale. While such pharmacological methods are more commonly used as treatment for individuals with abnormal brain states, it is extremely challenging to enforce them on a general population—see the increasing pushbacks against vaccines. In the short term, moral enhancement is likely to remain a therapeutic measure for those who are on the end of a social spectrum. Even if we were to live in a society where taking moral enhancement for the greater good of humanity is the norm or is legally required, people who are physiologically irresponsive to the neuromodulation might become disadvantaged. 

Neurotechnology is not the only way to access the reward system in our brain. Sometimes the hack does not require fancy techniques. While social media exploits our emotions, especially anger, to attract our attention and turn it into revenue, it also proves itself to be a powerful platform to engage people and spread ideas. In the context of COVID-19, the information that circulates on social media is influential. As shown in a recent report, moral messaging that emphasizes duties and responsibilities toward people in our community could positively impact public health behaviors and slow down the spread of COVID-19. Both social media platforms and their users share the responsibilities of promoting and spreading content that unites rather than divides people. Instead of shaming people who do not wear a mask, show the number of lives they could be saving. Instead of warning of the horror of economic downfall, show the prosperity of when business quickly returns to normal. Acknowledging kind gestures so that the actions no longer remain anonymous could help generate rushes of dopamine in the brain and reinforce the behavior. 

The current pandemic will eventually pass, but we will continue to face new challenges and crises together as a society. There will be times when our efforts might seem minimal and meaningless. Rather than focusing on the small inconvenience or loss, we might be more motivated to help others if we focus on the gain. 

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Yunmiao Wang is a PhD student in the Neuroscience Program at Emory University. She studies the role of the basal ganglia in decision-making and motor control in mice.

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Wang, Y. (2020). Hacking Altruism in the Brain for Global Crises. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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