Neuroscience and human nature: Review of The Altruistic Brain


A book review on The Altruistic Brain: How we are Naturally Good As a rule, a natural scientist writing on an evidently philosophical subject matter sets the average philosopher's antennae quivering. Nevertheless, (cognitive) neuroscience has matured as a field of research and its practitioners are now ready and able to interpret the consequences of their research for our understanding of the individual as well as society as a whole. In The Altruistic Brain Donald Pfaff sets out to and succeeds in doing just this when he puts forward what he calls Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT). Essentially, he postulates that findings from neuroscience indicate that as human beings we are " wired " to be good, just as we are " wired " to acquire natural language(s). Pfaff 's book, which is written for a non-specialist audience, thus presents and interprets evidence in favor of an idea already expressed by Wilhelm von Humboldt who declared that humankind is intrinsically more inclined to philanthropic than self-serving actions (von Humboldt, 1792/1851, p. 98). The book is divided into two parts, the first one introducing ABT, the second part being a discussion of the theory's implications for individual behavior, society as a whole, and jurisprudence. Intriguingly, ABT is simple insofar as that it posits that the brain processes altruism in only five steps, all of which are rooted in well-understood neurocognitive mechanisms. Pfaff cites neuro-physiological studies showing that the brain represents actions before they are taken (step 1), as well as neuroimaging studies indicating, for example, a dedicated " face recognition module " for representing the target of a potential action (step 2). Vision is used as an example throughout the book whereas the author makes it clear that other modalities can be expected to be involved as well. For step 3, the author relies on the cross-excitation of neurons to argue that representations of the " target " and the " self " are being merged before the emotional consequences of the impending action are evaluated and presented to a supposed " ethical switch " in the circuitry between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (step 4). Finally, step 5 then constitutes a straightforward yes-no decision which Pfaff locates in the insula. Whether an altruistic action is ultimately carried out furthermore depends on neural and hormonal mechanisms that, as Pfaff holds, have evolved to promote prosocial behavior. ABT and its implications diverge from …

DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00307

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@inproceedings{Trettenbrein2015NeuroscienceAH, title={Neuroscience and human nature: Review of The Altruistic Brain}, author={Patrick C. Trettenbrein}, booktitle={Front. Psychol.}, year={2015} }