You and the Cingulate Cortex

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Questions that arise from scientists spotting the part of the brain that makes us generous

IN THAT BIG pulpy mass called the brain, there is small little wavy area which goes by the mouthful of Subgenual Anterior Cingulate Cortex. On 16 August, researchers from Oxford University came out with a press release with the heading ‘Finding the brain’s generosity centre’. The import of it was that it was located in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. This is the part that starts buzzing when you, through goodness, set out to do something for someone else. While that might be a very good thing to know, it does a raise some questions problematic for the human race. The study found that people, in general, like to do things for themselves first and then move on to helping others. No surprises there. But they also found that some people are better able to get the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex to get going with its generosity. Its lead researcher noted, ‘However, this region of the brain was not equally active in every person. People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learnt to benefit others faster than those who reported having lower levels of empathy. They also showed increased signalling in their subgenual anterior cingulate cortex when benefitting others.’ Consider what it means: we are dependent on this portion of the brain to decide our generosity. Should we be courageous enough stretch this argument, how good we are—essentially a function of how empathetic we are—is not in our control.

One of the reasons they study such behaviour, which is termed ‘prosocial’, is to understand the opposite: how psychological conditions ‘characterised by antisocial disregard for others’ come about. Like what is behind sociopaths and psychopaths, who have no empathy whatsoever. This brings us to another unsettling area: if the actions of criminals are dictated by absence of empathy over which they have no control, how do you put someone in jail if he had no choice over what he did? If a criminal will be a criminal no matter what, and a Gandhi a Gandhi, then why should we blame the former or admire the latter?

This is not an isolated question. As studies of the brain progress, we are finding that many actions that we think we choose to do are an merely expression of neurochemicals. There is a philosophical theory called ‘Illusionism’ which says that free will and consciousness don’t exist at all; all we have is an illusion of it while our actions remain guided by genes. There are no clear answers, but some philosophers find an escape clause by saying that Illusionism could be real, but determinism, or the inevitability of human actions, might not necessarily follow from it. Within the bounds of our genes, someone predisposed to aggression might temper it. Or, barring psychopaths, one might still be able to work on one’s subgenual anterior cingulate cortex to be just a little more generous.