Why do some people risk their lives for others? It’s all in the brain
“UNDERGROUND hero” was the big headline this week, with the story of the firefighter Angus Campbell, who challenged an alleged Tube bomber to protect his fellow passengers.
He showed unflinching altruism, risking all for people he did not know. The normal reaction to such a threat is to run away as fast as possible. Our fight/flight response has basically remained unchanged since the days of roaming the savannahs. So why, in some individuals, does the self-preservation programme fail to kick in? The process appears to contradict biology. Once the brain perceives a threat, the nervous system goes into overdrive before a single coherent thought can be framed. A series of emergency chemicals is released, including epinephrine, noradrenaline, norepinephrine and acetylcholine, some of the most powerful and fast-acting drugs known to medicine. So it is almost unbelievable that, rather than escape, some individuals can stop, think, control their feelings, appraise a situation objectively and decide that their survival is not of key concern.
There is an evolutionary principle, which is that apparently altruistic acts can often be traced to protecting the interests of your offspring. But this doesn’t seem to have been the case for Campbell.
Can we attribute his behaviour to his service background? Another everyday hero, Wesley Autrey, who recently dived in front of an oncoming train on the
New York subway to save the life of a stranger, had been in the military, so is there some conditioning for selfless behaviour here? Perhaps, but not all servicemen are heroes, some are cowards, and conspicuous acts of bravery are recognised by every service authority as unusual. There is evidence that soldiers do not generally lay down their lives for “Queen and country”: their astounding acts of bravery are motivated mainly by the rules of kinship in small groups of buddies.
What does demonstrate the existence of unqualified altruism is new brain-scanning research from scientists at the Duke University Medical Centre, who have isolated a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal cortex. This, they say, is specifically devoted to the display and management of human acts of altruism. Like musical ability or generosity, it is more developed in some people than others.
In other words, there is a small piece of civilisation scripted into our parietal lobes. Call it hard-wired conscience, call it human soul, it enables some of us to become better Samaritans.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; Vivienne Parry is away