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Can you believe that where and how much we donate actually is due to the mechanics of our brain?

January 26, 2010
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SAPP came across this very interesting article on ScienceBlogs. Jonah Lehrer writes about an article that discusses the scientific aspect of why people donate. In his article he relates donations and philanthropic engagement to dopamine releasing mechanics in the cerebral corticular mechanics. However, he states that the bigger question was how does the human brain assign value to different objects? Why is it that someone decides that something is better than the other?

Lehrer states that, “computing the value of a charitable donation might require inputs from areas involved in social cognition.” For instance, when we engage in giving or donations we assess ourselves in comparisons to others in need. Simultaneously this largely depends on the amount of “empathy” we feel towards that particular organization.

In the experiment 22 women were each given $100 that they could donate to various charities while in an fMRI machine. Any remaining money that was left over they could keep, and their donations would be matched by other research funds. 150 trials were conducted. Subjects would think about which of 75 different charities they wanted to donate to while in a scanner. Before entering the scanner, the 22 women were asked to rate based on their personal opinion whether or not a charity was deserving and how close it was to them.

The study revealed that the amount of charitable donations was stimulated in the brain by an area known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). The VMPFC received stimuli from other areas such as the anterior insula and posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC) (both which are associated with social cognition). The insula has also been associated with feelings of empathy, where as the pSTC detects agency in others.

The decision on whether or not to donate is not always as Lehrer states, “rational calculations” but rather their underlying reason lies within the mechanics of our brain. How interesting!

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