A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Who’s More Altruistic: Monkeys or Researchers?

Here’s a weird one: A group of researchers sets out to study empathy in monkeys. They want to understand altruism better. So they cook up a vivisection experiment that involves implanting electrodes deep into the brains of monkeys and then watching to see whether the monkeys will treat each other with kindness and what happens in their brains at the same time.

I can’t help wondering what this tells us about empathy and altruism in humans.

In their homes in the wild, rhesus monkeys live in a highly social environment and raise their young in extended families.

Here’s the basics of this vivisection experiment (you can read the full study at Nature Neuroscience):

The “scientists” teach a group of rhesus monkeys a kind of computer game in which the monkeys can choose either to give or not to give a juice treat to other monkeys. The researchers monitor what goes in the monkey’s brains.

What they learn: The monkeys consistently prefer doling out juice to other monkeys over giving them nothing. And the researchers see neurons firing in a region of the brain, the anterior cingulate gyrus, that appears to be related to a form of empathy.

Conclusion, as reported in Live Science:

[Matthew Platt of Duke University, co-author of the study] speculates that this region may operate similarly in humans and may encode vicarious experiences when others are happy or sad.

“That vicarious experience and reward is perhaps what actually drives giving behavior and perhaps drives charity in people,” he said.

… The new findings provide a “complete picture of the neuronal activity underlying a key aspect of social cognition,” Matthew Rushworth, a neuroscientist at Oxford who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.”It is definitely a major achievement.”

So, what exactly is the major achievement here? A group of people who are studying empathy, charity, kindness and social cognition take a group of rhesus monkeys who have been born and bred in captivity, who have grown up in cages and have never known a home in the wild. They open up the monkeys’ brains and stick electrodes into them, and teach the monkeys how to operate a computer through which they can do something generous for their fellow monkeys. The researchers appear to exhibit considerably less empathy toward the monkeys than the monkeys do for each other.

According to neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, “This was a highly invasive procedure in which each monkey underwent two surgeries, the second of which recorded neural activity from deep areas of the brain.”

And what Platt and his colleagues observe is that the monkeys in this laboratory experiment – monkeys who had been deprived of all natural social activity for their entire lives – want to do good for each other.

As Live Science reports it:

While it’s not clear exactly what’s going on in the monkeys’ brains, the results suggest that this brain region may be partly responsible for creating primitive forms of empathy.

Platt says that the region of the brain he and his colleagues studied “may operate similarly in humans.”

Apparently not, however, in his own brain or in the brains of his colleagues. You don’t need to do brain surgery on these people to know that they exhibit considerably less empathy toward the monkeys than the monkeys do for each other.