The age-old philosophical, biological, and social debate over the basic nature of humans as being “universally selfish” or “universally good” continues today highlighting sharply divergent views of natural social order. Here we analyze advances in biology, genetics and neuroscience increasing our understanding of the evolution, features and neurocircuitry of the human brain underlying behavior in the selfish–selfless spectrum. First, we examine evolutionary pressures for selection of altruistic traits in species with protracted periods of dependence on parents and communities for subsistence and acquisition of learned behaviors. Evidence supporting the concept that altruistic potential is a common feature in human populations is developed. To go into greater depth in assessing critical features of the social brain, the two extremes of selfish–selfless behavior, callous unemotional psychopaths and zealous altruists who take extreme measures to help others, are compared on behavioral traits, structural/functional neural features, and the relative contributions of genetic inheritance versus acquired cognitive learning to their mindsets. Evidence from population groups ranging from newborns, adopted children, incarcerated juveniles, twins and mindfulness meditators point to the important role of neuroplasticity and the dopaminergic reward systems in forming and reforming neural circuitry in response to personal experience and cultural influences in determining behavior in the selfish–selfless spectrum. The underlying neural circuitry differs between psychopaths and altruists with emotional processing being profoundly muted in psychopaths and significantly enhanced in altruists. But both groups are characterized by the reward system of the brain shaping behavior. Instead of rigid assignment of human nature as being “universally selfish” or “universally good,” both characterizations are partial truths based on the segments of the selfish–selfless spectrum being examined. In addition, individuals and populations can shift in the behavioral spectrum in response to cognitive therapy and social and cultural experience, and approaches such as mindfulness training for introspection and reward-activating compassion are entering the mainstream of clinical care for managing pain, depression, and stress.

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Published in Frontiers in Psychology, v. 9, article 575, p. 1-18.

Copyright © 2018 Sonne and Gash.

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