“Goodness is the only investment that never fails.” –Henry David ThoreauThe question is, an investment in what?
Read Montague, a.k.a. The Hottest Man in Neuroscience, is perhaps best known for his research in decision-making. A few years ago, in what became his most celebrated experiments, he scanned people’s brains while they were looking at Coke and Pepsi advertisements and basically found a neurological basis of the former’s powerful branding. Now in this month’s Nature Neuroscience, Montague, my favorite neuroscientist, writes a delicious commentary tackling my favorite subject: the biological (and specifically, neurological) basis of human altruism.
Within the altruism debate—Is it really for the good of the group? Or is it ultimately just a behavioral ploy where the individual expects a reward, eventually?—I’ve always fallen in the latter, cynical camp. Still, until I read Montague’s piece, I had never actually thought about this idea in purely economic terms… he writes:
“Fairness is easy to understand as a kind of economic computation that all socially interacting nervous systems must carry out. Individuals who depend on one another must share if the group is to be valuable to them.”
Humph. I really have nothing more to say about that quote. It’s one of those ideas that I keep reading over and over without being able to fully process.
By the way, the research article on which Montague was commenting doesn’t really answer any of these fundamental questions about the origin and continued presence of altruism in human society. But its results were still cool. Basically, when humans were asked to watch a computer simulation in which money was raised for charity, a brain region lit up that had been previously linked to the evaluating other people’s motives. And since in order to be altruistic you have to be able to distinguish between yourself and someone else, the authors suggest this brain area is also involved in detecting agency in others.
(This “detecting agency” thing has been proposed by various idiots—oops—as something that makes us “uniquely human.” So I can’t wait until they do a similar computer-simulated charity experiment on macaques and find this brain region lighting up in similar ways….)