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"Grey Areas" -- The Discovery Files

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A new study by neuroscientists at Duke and Stanford University sheds light on how the brain coordinates complex decisions involving altruism and empathy. The answer lies in the way multiple areas of the brain collaborate to produce the decision, rather than just one area or another making the call.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Kind over matter.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: city sounds, sidewalk, hurried footsteps) You're in a mad rush. You come across a stranger who needs help. Stop right there. Oh, you can still do the random act of niceness, but let's focus for a second on just what's going on in your brain as you make that Good Samaritan decision. The whole thing must have gone straight to the "empathy" region of the brain, right? A study from Duke and Stanford Universities reveals it's not that simple.

The team monitored brain activity in rats involved in empathetic behavior. Yep, altruistic rodents. (Sound effect: rat squeak) To get the rats to do something nice for another rat, the team set up an experiment: It relies on rats' preference for dark places. Would a rat go willingly into a lighted chamber if it knew that would save a fellow rat from getting an electric shock? Turns out most would.

But back to the brain activity as they decided. Tests showed multiple areas of the brain collaborated to produce the decision -- not just one area or another making the call. And the brain regions involved were the same ones we use in making empathetic and moral decisions.

The results highlight the importance of connections between the different brain regions and could help shed light on conditions like psychopathy, where patients are unable to experience empathy.

You do a nice thing. Guess you can't call it a "no-brainer."

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