Sunday, October 12, 2014

The brains of psychopaths (serial killers) and extraordinary altruists (nondirected kidney donors)

First, the altruists, in PNAS:
Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists
Abigail A. Marsha,1, Sarah A. Stoycosa, Kristin M. Brethel-Haurwitza, Paul Robinsonb, John W. VanMeterc, and Elise M. Cardinalea

Abstract: "Altruistic behavior improves the welfare of another individual while reducing the altruist’s welfare. Humans’ tendency to engage in altruistic behaviors is unevenly distributed across the population, and individual variation in altruistic tendencies may be genetically mediated. Although neural endophenotypes of heightened or extreme antisocial behavior tendencies have been identified in, for example, studies of psychopaths, little is known about the neural mechanisms that support heightened or extreme prosocial or altruistic tendencies. In this study, we used structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess a population of extraordinary altruists: altruistic kidney donors who volunteered to donate a kidney to a stranger. Such donations meet the most stringent definitions of altruism in that they represent an intentional behavior that incurs significant costs to the donor to benefit an anonymous, nonkin other. Functional imaging and behavioral tasks included face-emotion processing paradigms that reliably distinguish psychopathic individuals from controls. Here we show that extraordinary altruists can be distinguished from controls by their enhanced volume in right amygdala and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results mirror the reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions observed in psychopathic individuals. Our results support the possibility of a neural basis for extraordinary altruism. We anticipate that these findings will expand the scope of research on biological mechanisms that promote altruistic behaviors to include neural mechanisms that support affective and social responsiveness."

Here's a news story on the article: Who Would Donate a Kidney to a Stranger? An ‘Anti-Psychopath’
"In recent decades, psychopathy is something that’s captured the attention of both academics and the mainstream. Psychopaths play big roles in movies and even occasionally on public radio, and there’s evidence that a few of them may be in your company’s boardroom right this minute. 
But emerging research is changing how experts understand the condition. “There was a time when people thought of psychopaths as this sort of unique group of individuals — as in, there were normal people, and there were psychopaths,” said Georgetown University psychologist Abigail Marsh. “But now we’re finding that psychopathic traits work the same as other mental-illness symptoms. So with psychopathy, like almost anything else, people will have more or fewer of those traits, and so you have people at one end and most people in the middle.” Marsh calls this the “caring continuum,” and its existence, she said, “begs the question: What’s at the other end of the curve?”
New research she just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests an answer: If the dark, scary end of the caring continuum is inhabited by psychopaths, way down at the other end is a group of what she calls “anti-psychopaths” — ultra-do-gooders who are extraordinarily compassionate, prosocial, and empathetic.
Marsh wanted to study the characteristics of these sorts of people, so she sought so-called “altruistic kidney donors” who offer up a kidney to anyone who needs it (as opposed to those who donate a kidney to a friend or loved one), figuring they would fit the bill."

As it happens, at the recent Google Zeitgeist conference I  heard James Fallon speak about psychopathology (and his own brush with it...). Here's the video of his 30 minute talk/

You can find videos of the other talks given at Google Zeitgeist 2014 here.

1 comment: said...

I was disappointed that the researchers stopped short of causal explanations. I think that it would have been within the scope of the study had the researchers continued on to examine what may have happened in the subjects’ lives to possibly cause their neurobiological and psychological attributes.

An accompanying PNAS commentary from a Harvard researcher made some interesting points. However, the author showed his biases that the thinking brain rules human behavior with an out-of-left-field question at the end of a paragraph in which he developed specious reasoning.

He was completely off base when he stated: “Could it be that extraordinary altruists such as Maupin [a study participant] and the 19 individuals studied by Marsh et al. [the researchers] are special, not only because of how they feel when they see people in distress, but because of how they think?” I don’t imagine that the brilliant commentator’s attempt to upstage the study’s subjects and get the spotlight on himself for some brilliant idea was much appreciated by anyone involved.

The amygdala is the central hub of a person’s feeling brain. The study’s findings had very little to say about the subjects’ thinking brains.

To postulate that the researchers missed that there was something different about the subjects’ thinking brains was out of touch with the realities of both the researchers’ scientific bases and the subjects. It’s another example of the current research mindset/social meme of thinking brain dominance.