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Measuring Brain Activity To Test How Generous You Are

Swiss researchers have discovered that the more grey matter in your brain, the more generous you were likely to be, as individuals use the mental power to "overcome the natural selfishness of man."

Grey suit without the grey matter? (visionandlight)
Grey suit without the grey matter? (visionandlight)

ZURICH - Unlike their own money, there's something penny-pinchers have less of than spendthrifts: grey matter -- at least in a certain region of their brain. Researchers from Switzerland's University of Zurich led by Ernst Fehr, director of the department of economics, concluded that thevolume of grey matter housed at the junction of the two brain lobes indicated people's readiness to help other people out.

Participants to the study -- the results of which were published in the magazine Neuron -- were asked to share money with people they did not know.

The participants always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. Such a sacrifice can be deemed altruistic because it helps someone else at one's own expense, thus showing that participants were able to put themselves in someone else's shoes and understand their thoughts and feelings.

While they were busy dividing their loot, the team of researchers monitored their brain activity, and measured the volume of grey matter. The results showed a difference in size in the region of the brain located behind the ear -- between parietal and temporal lobes.

Brain scans also indicated that for Scrooges, this particular area was very active even when dealing with small amounts of money -- whereas for the Mother Teresa types, the region was only activated during major exchanges.

The researchers concluded that the more active the participants' grey matter was, the closer they were to reaching the limits of their altruism. The Swiss team concluded that brain activity in that region of the brain means that the individual is trying to "overcome the natural selfishness of man."

This is the first time that a connection is found between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior, says Ernst Fehr. "That said, one should by no means jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone," Fehr said.

The volume of grey matter is also defined by social processes, he says. The results leave open the question whether it is possible to stimulate the development of brain areas responsible for people's generosity.

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - visionandlight

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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