Many U.S. scientists seem to be on the same wavelength these days. In a storm of recent studies, they have used brain-imaging technology to answer questions about human behavior once left to economists, philosophers and theologians.
A study by Stanford University psychologists and Carnegie-Mellon University economists explores whether people are tightwads or spendthrifts. (The results were published in the Jan. 4 edition of the journal Neuron.)
At the University of Pennsylvanias Center for Spirituality and the Mind, an interdisciplinary group of scholars (not a bricks-and-mortar facility) that promotes research and dialogue on the mind, religion and ethics used neuroimaging to study brain activity related to the practice of glossolalia, more commonly known as speaking in tongues.
The findings showed decreased activity in the frontal lobes, which help humans feel in control of things, according to Andrew Newberg, director of the center and an associate professor of radiology, psychiatry and religious studies at Penn. The finding is consistent with the thinking that the studys subjectswho believe they are directed by the spirit of Godlack intentional control when speaking in tongues, although the scan cannot prove if thats actually the case.
And at Duke University, researchers discovered that activity in a certain region of the brain can predict altruistic or selfish behaviors. For the study, they scanned the brains of 45 people while the subjects either played a computer game or watched the computer play a game to earn money for charity.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scans revealed that a part of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus (or pSTS to you science types) was activated to a greater degree when people perceived an action, rather than when they acted themselves (See image at left). Brain activity was greater when subjects watched the computer play the game. They discovered that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than from how they act in it. Subjects also completed a survey with questions such as, Would you sacrifice your time for a friend in distress? says Scott Huettel, a neuroscientist at Dukes Brain Imaging and Analysis Center and one of the studys authors. After characterizing participants as more or less altruistic from answers to the questionnaire, the researchers compared the brain scans with their level of altruistic behavior.