Love can make us do crazy things. It often asks us to behave in conflicting ways, such as placing our lover's welfare over ourselves.
Such altruism has confused and fascinated scientists for centuries. A new study by UC Santa Barbara examines how a person's genetics and brain activity correlates with altruistic behaviors targeting romantic partners. The team found that pathways associated with binding in other animals appeared in humans and may be involved in altruism more generally. The results appear from the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.
Scientists currently believe that altruism evolved into social species as a strategy to ensure the survival of relatives. The idea is that genes that promote altruism will continue, perhaps not through a person's children, but through their family who carry similar genetics. In this way, the provision of your relatives ensures that some of your own genes have gone down.
For humans, with our complex social systems, this basic premise takes on new dimensions. "It would make sense that people would be particularly invested in the well-being of their partners because they will live long, happy and healthy living together," said Bianca Acevedo, researcher at UC Santa Barbara's Neuroscience Research Institute, and paper management author. "And in the case of newlyweds, some of them will have children. Therefore, they are selfless toward their partner's investment in their offspring."
Altruism is an important aspect of mating, but according to Acevedo, it has not been studied much – especially when compared to the bond between parents and their children, where altruism is critical. "Responding to a child in an unselfish manner is such an important piece of caring," Acevedo said.
Phenomena as nuanced as love and altruism involve much chemistry. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that has addressed popular consciousness as the "staple hormone". And although it is involved in a number of processes, it is a role in trust, empathy and bonding are well established. Less well known is the hormone vasopressin, which scientists also have associated with couple binding.
Acevedo's team recruited newlywed couples to investigate how a person's genetics and brain activity correlates with the empathy they show toward their romantic partner. The team tested each participant for two genetic variants, one involved in oxytocin sensitivity and another associated with vasopressin sensitivity. The researchers made them respond to a standardized questionnaire asking about their feelings towards their partner and other individuals. This gave them a measure of each person's overall levels of empathy and altruism against their partner.
Then the participants participated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) machine. Although similar to the standard MR machines used by doctors to appear soft tissue, fMRI & # 39; can detect changes associated with blood flow. This allows researchers to see how different parts of the brain are activated in response to different types of stimuli. In this case, the participants were shown pictures of their romantic partners, friends and strangers with different facial expressions. The researchers explained what the person in the picture felt and why, to elicit an emotional response.
When participants felt a strong sense of empathy with the person in the picture, the brain areas were associated with emotion and emotional memory. "It's almost like the brain is responding in a way that signals" it's important to pay attention, "Acevedo said.
These areas of the brain – such as amygdala and ventral pallidum – have a particularly close concentration of receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin, further implying these neurotransmitters in empathy and altruism. Furthermore, individuals with genetic variations that made them more sensitive to these hormones exhibit stronger emotional responses across the board.
The researchers also found that brain groups that specifically activated in response to a partner's face were the same regions that are critical in other animals during studies of couple binding and attachment. This suggests that our brains have pathways dedicated specifically to attachment-related behavior, pathways that may be quite old. However, some of these attached pathways showed activity even when participants saw foreign faces, expressing the intricate notions of empathy and altruism that were at play in humans.
Acevedo continues to explore empathy, altruism and care in various types of couples. She is currently investigating how bodily activities such as yoga affect how individuals respond to partners struggling with memory problems.
"It's important that we think of these systems and these behaviors beyond romance," Acevedo said. "When people think about relationships, they tend to think of romantic love as being really important, but we have forgotten some of the other basic and important reasons why people are together, like caring for one another.
"In addition to romantic love, we live long lives together. Many of us raise children or take care of each other in old age," Acevedo continued. "And altruism is deeply rooted in our evolutionary, neural and genetic framework."
For the first time, a neural connection between altruism and empathy towards strangers
Bianca P. Acevedo et al., Beyond romance: Neural and genetic correlates of altruism in couple bonds. Behavioral Neuroscience (2019). DOI: 10.1037 / bne0000293
University of California – Santa Barbara
Scientists turn to newlyweds to solve questions about empathy and the chemistry of the bond (2019, 11 February)
February 11, 2019
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