November 2, 2017 — How does your brain differ from that of a psychopath?
That’s what Georgetown psychology professor Abigail Marsh explains in detail in her new book, The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths and Everyone In-Between.
Marsh’s research has used brain imaging to measure differences in the structure of the amygdala – an area of the brain associated with emotion, decision-making and memory.
She has studied the brains of known psychopaths and “extreme altruists” who give their kidneys to strangers.
Psychopaths vs. Altruists
“People who are extremely altruistic have amygdalae that look basically like the opposite of a psychopath’s,” says Marsh, who recently received a National Science Foundation grant to continue research on the neurological basis of altruism. “They’re larger than average, more reactive than average and help the person better able to recognize and empathize with fear.”
Based on Marsh’s years of research, the book explores the differences between the brains of psychopaths, altruists and so-called “ordinary” people.
Her book also reflects the prevailing belief in modern psychology that most “disorders” are better understood as high- or low-end examples of behavioral spectrums.
“It’s not that there’s a hard and fast cutoff between being anxious and having an anxiety disorder – there’s a gradient,” Marsh says. “The same is true for empathy and compassion.”
Her research team’s most recent findings reveal that the connections between the amygdala and the periaqueductal gray (PAG) — a region of gray matter involved in pain and stress regulation — may support caring responses in altruists.
Marsh hypothesizes that the brain’s parental care system, of which pathways between the amygdala and PAG are a part, has been adapted in altruists to support caring responses to all people, not just children or other family members.
“The same systems are on overdrive in altruists, and they’re active when presented with a situation in which they can help somebody,” Marsh said.
Meditation and Altruism
The newest experiment Marsh is leading involves performing a meditation-based intervention with “ordinary” people to see if it makes them respond more like altruists do.
“We’re going to leverage their capacity to care for people close to them and try to make it apply to people who are more distant,” Marsh said.
Marsh and her team will perform brain scans on their subjects while they are presented with a task involving their willingness to help various others.
The team hopes to determine whether the subjects from the meditation protocol are more willing to help strangers.
Marsh’s work continues to gain recognition.
Earlier this month, the S&R Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting artists and scientists whose work supports charitable causes that enrich society, recognized Marsh with its 2017 Kuno Award.
The award is presented to a scientist whose research attempts to solve a 21st-century problem.
“I am honored and thrilled to have been selected as this year’s recipient of the Kuno Award,” Marsh said. “With its support, my students and I will be able to work toward a more complete understanding of human altruism and to develop better methods for fostering it.”