Press release Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

Which role does the brain play in prosocial behavior?

8 May 2018

A study from Selene Gallo (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, KNAW) investigated whether altering activity in these tactile brain regions while witnessing the pain of others would alter people’s willingness to help. The results, published on 08 May 2018 in eLife, are of great importance to understand our social human nature and to find treatments for pathologies, like psychopath individuals.

Helping other people in need is a foundation of our society. It is intuitive to believe that we help others because we empathically share their pain. Neuroscience shows that when we see somebody in pain our brain activates tactile and emotional regions as if we ourselves were in pain. 

To answer the question of Selene Gallo, researchers from the Social Brain Lab, led by Valeria Gazzola and Christian Keysers (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, KNAW), gave participants the opportunity to reduce the pain of a victim receiving a swat on her hand. They could reduce the pain by giving up money they could have otherwise taken home while their tactile brain activity was measured and altered.

The researchers used electroencephalography, a method to record electrical activity of the brain, in healthy human participants. With this method, they found that the activity in tactile cortices increased when participants increased their donation. Later they altered brain activity by using neuromodulation. Normally participants gave more money when the victim experienced more pain. But when interfering with tactile activity two related phenomena were observed: (a) people became less able to perceive in how much pain the other person was and (b) they no longer adapted their donations as appropriately to the needs of the other.

More information

Website Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience is an Academy research institute. It conducts basic and strategic research in the neurosciences. It examines how the human brain makes awareness, perception, movement, learning, social interaction and other cognitive functions possible. It also studies how brain disorders can disrupt these functions. 

Logo Nederlands Herseninstituut