Amazing Drives

In many social animal species, we see cooperation. Often those cooperating are related. Humans are among the species that cooperate effectively without being related. One of the current ideas is that this is learned over a long period and is based on the idea that we discern other to have thoughts and feelings similar to ours, which makes that cooperation work.

With a big magnet free, the big question can be asked what parts of the brain are working hard when we cooperate. Krill and colleagues gave 28 participants driving tests while having fMRI scans of their brains and reported on their results in the Public Library of Science (1).

The driving was through a maze on a computer screen. No easy task as they had a time limit to drive through each maze and they were presented with multiple mazes. It may be hard enough trying to drive through a maze when getting an fMRI, but this was just the baseline.

The real challenge was putting the participants in pairs and blindfolding the driver. The other person acted as instructor, indicating right, left, accelerate or brake NOW! They then changed places so that the other could shout at the driver.

After all this excitement the pictures were analyzed. Lots of brain activity of course. Now comes the really exciting part. Each person’s baseline image was subtracted from their blind driving images and there was consistently more activity in two regions when people were cooperating.

The regions were the orbital frontal cortex, and the caudate nucleus, right in the center of the brain. This part is associated with learning and feedback processes, but is also loaded with dopamine neurons. This means that there is a reward feeling (we like dopamine hitting our receptors) when we’re cooperating.

So it appears that we’re hard wired to cooperate with each other. It is interesting that the participants, who were 24 – 25-years old, were made up of 18 women and 10 men. However, the make-up of the pairs wasn’t given in the paper, so we don’t know if things would work better or worse if a blindfolded male was paired with a female instructor or vice versa. We are left to our prejudices remembering that men are notorious for not stopping to ask directions when lost.


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