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The brain's pathways to imagination can be the key to altruistic behavior



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In a split second when people witness distress, the neural pathways in the brain support the desire to help through facets of the imagination that allow people to see the episode in unfolding and considering how to help those in need, according to a team of Boston college researchers.

The process underlying the work is called episodic simulation, that is, the ability of individuals to reorganize memories of the past into a newly imagined and simulated event in the mind.

Neuroimaging has helped researchers identify multiple neural pathways explaining the relationship between imagination and willingness to help others, recent researchers at Boston College and the University of New York said. Albany, SUNY. Cognitive and affective social neuroscience.

The team explored two distinct brain regions with different functions: the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), a key brain region believed to be involved in the representation of the mind of other people, also called " taking perspective "; and the medial temporal lobe subsystem (MTL), a set of brain regions that support the simulation of imagined scenes.

The study revealed evidence of the direct impact of scene imaging on the willingness to help, according to Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston College, Liane Young, co-author and principal researcher of the project. The study participants imagined help scenes, but MTL's neural activity predicts a global desire to help the person in need, according to the article, "The Role of the Medial Temporal Lobe Subsystem in the conduct of prosociality: effect of episodic processes on the willingness to help others, "which was published in the April 14 edition of the journal.

"If we are able to imagine helping someone, then we think he is more likely to do it," said Young, director of the Morality Lab of British Columbia. "Imagining the landscape surrounding the situation can also encourage people to take into account the point of view of those who need help, which in turn encourages pro-social action."

This may be due to a phenomenon called inflation of the imagination, where humans use the vividness of their imagination to give an idea of ​​the likelihood of an event, according to co-authors, who also included l & # 39; 39, former British Columbia postdoctoral fellow Brendan Gaesser. currently assistant professor of psychology at the University of Albany, SUNY, research assistants Joshua Hirschfeld-Kroen and Emily A. Wasserman, and research assistant at the undergraduate, Mary Horn.

The team sought to understand how the ability to simulate imagined and memorized scenes helps to motivate individuals to form more altruistic intentions. The goal was to discover the cognitive and neural mechanisms that explain the relationship between episodic simulation and the increased willingness to help those in need.

In the first experiment, which allowed the team to examine both regions of the brain, the researchers collected functional brain images as people imagined and remembered to help the others in hypothetical scenarios. In the second experiment, while people imagined helping another person, the team used transcranial magnetic stimulation (SMT) to disrupt the activity of their right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), a key brain region believed to participate in the representation of the spirit of other people.

Neuroimaging revealed that willingness to help was also predicted by the activity of RTPJ, a critical node involved in taking into account the views of other people, according to the researchers. However, in the second experiment, when the team used TMS to temporarily inhibit the activity in the RTPJ, she found that the altruistic effect of imagining the living way alive. Help remained important, suggesting that this effect did not depend exclusively on perspective.

"We had initially predicted that a higher neuronal activity in the medial temporal lobe subsystem would be associated with a greater willingness to help," said the team. "Surprisingly, we found the opposite: the more a person had activity in his MTL subsystem while she imagined helping scenes, the less she was willing to help the person in need."

This contradiction can be explained by a weaker activity of the MTL, which translates a greater ease of imagination of the episodes. This ease of imagination means that participants are more willing to help. Consistent with this review, the team found that when participants stated that it was easier to imagine or remember to help episodes, they also tended to indicate that they were more willing to help the person in need.

Young and Gaesser recently discovered in a separate study, led by postdoctoral researcher Jaclyn Ford and Professor Elizabeth Kensinger, that a memorable memory of helping had been associated with more generous donations following the bombing of the Boston Marathon 2013. The next steps in the research will further connect the laboratory's neuroimaging approach to altruistic behavioral measurements in the real world.


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More information:
Brendan Gaesser et al, The role of the medial temporal lobe subsystem in the orientation of prosociality: effect of episodic processes on the willingness to help others, Cognitive and affective social neuroscience (2019). DOI: 10.1093 / scan / nsz014

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