3SC Chair’s Blog

I’m not a natural reader of the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavorial Neuroscience – but this week I stumbled across a press report about an article that’s appeared there. Cutting through the academic jargon, it’s about how the brains of altruists work differently to those of egotists. Given that 3SC’s work is motivated by altruism rather than egotism, it might have some interesting lessons.

A team from UNIGE, the University of Geneva in Switzerland team used an MRI scan to study brain activity of 36 people when they were asked questions about the long-term potential consequences of climate change. The bottom line is that egotistical individuals don’t use the area of the brain that allows us to imagine and place ourselves into the distant future. The brains of altruists, on the other hand, were pretty busy in the same area.

Not much can be generalised about a piece of research on 36 brains – even less when it comes to positing ‘altruism’ or ‘egotism’ as a defining characteristic.

But intuitively I think we all know when we encounter people who basically fall on one side or the other when it comes to being able to feel generosity towards others, and those who are driven by self-centredness. The far bigger (and probably unanswerable) question is – how do we shift more of the ‘egotists’ to become ‘altruists’?

Perhaps all that can be done is to exist, to represent a pillar of altruism that is ‘out there’, chipping away at the various areas where egotism has got out of hand. That’s certainly what 3SC represents – a collaborative, cooperative, community venture that’s determined to improve society. No-one will really suggest zapping brains to cure the problem of egotism – and, goodness knows, that kind of Frankenstein approach would probably have unintended and adverse consequences. I believe in the steady powers of persuasion; changing minds rather than fiddling with brains.

John Swinney, Chair