The Psychobiology of Altruism


I was reading the other day that a Hooters waitress donated her kidney to a patron with renal failure that she barely knew. This selfless act requires analysis. As for motivation all we know is that the server (Marina) was inspired to do so because her grandma recently died after her kidneys failed.

Since we don’t know anything more about her personal or familial psychodynamics we need to try to understand her behaviour at a broader social communal level.  And of course given my fondness for reductionism this will ultimately takes us on a trip to the limbic system.

But first we need to start with sociobiology. What this has taught us is that humans developed cooperative skills because it was in their mutual interest to work well with others—practical circumstances often forced them to cooperate with others to obtain food. In other words, altruism isn’t the reason we cooperate; we must cooperate in order to survive, and we are altruistic to others because we need them for our survival. So humans may be hard-wired for empathy, which is the core of altruism and the foundation of morality. The biology of this has been touched on in my discussion of the hyperempathy of Tourette syndrome.

The action centres around the cingulate gyrus of the limbic system, the survival fight or flight area of the central nervous system and the adjacent insular cortex. These structures are the home of empathy development….


Empathic defects are found in several psychiatric disorders including autism, cluster B personality disorders, schizophrenia, and conduct disorders, suggesting potentially common neural deficits. This also includes, not surprisingly, Rand loving egocentric Republicans.

Once the molecular developments are better understood, then pharmacology is not far behind. Being able to prescribe medications for autism and republicanism would be a major advance.

This brings us to oxytocin, the neurochemical released during lactation. Oxytocin promotes empathy, and when the chemical is inhibited in someone, they become more prone to “sinful” or selfish conduct. A recent study demonstrated the first evidence that oxytocin is a physiologic signature for empathy and that empathy mediates generosity.  The hyperempathy of Tourette’s and their synaptic dopamine hypersensitivity, supports a possible neurochemical communication between the insular cortex and the posterior pituitary, the home of oxytocin.

Oxytocin nasal spray has shown promise in the treatment of autism though as a hormone it is not target specific. Hormones are too broad in action thus explaining its failure with right-wing therapy.

Now heading back to sociology our kidney donor Marina is Hispanic (Mestizo). Having spent several years immersed in the culture of a north Belize fishing village I learned that cultural norms embody the communalism and familism that characterize social structures and traditions of caring among Hispanics. They are fairly empathic folks by nurture and as humans by nature as well.  In the village where I lived there was a strange older fellow who hobbled through the village every day through every street. Nobody knew exactly how he got there only that he originated in the Yucatan. I thought he had schizophrenia but he didn’t say much or make eye contact.

The villagers took turns feeding him and housing him. He was always welcome anywhere he went and one day I was called to see him as he had been ill. Well as it turned out he was dead. He had been looked after for several days by rotations of village ladies in a small unoccupied home. The village paid for his funeral costs.

It comes as no surprise that the happiest countries in the world are in Latin America, a culture of democratic socialists who gave us Che Guevara, Jose Mujica, Daniel Ortega and now Marina Villareal- the renal altruist.

On that note my left-wing primary editorial advisor told me to wait and  see if Marina ends up with a new house. My right-wing advisor remarked .. “He’s lucky. She’s an idiot.” Clearly I am an idealist surrounded by cynics who probably just need a few snorts of oxytocin nasal spray.

What do you think of this post?
  • Awesome 
  • Meh 
  • Boring 
  • Useful 
  • Interesting 

One Response to “The Psychobiology of Altruism”

  1. kristina nadreau says:

    I like the theory

    women who refuse to breast feed??????

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: