Ana Veciana-Suarez

An empathy pill to erase selfishness? Not so fast

KRT

Oh, if only it were it so simple!

Surely you’ve heard about the compassion pill — or the hope and possibility of it. Turns out a drug we might one day take with our morning supplements could make us nicer. Kindness with my D3 vitamin. Sympathy in my smoothie. Huh.

A new study published online in the journal Current Biology, suggests that manipulating a brain chemical leads people to behave in more generous ways when dealing with economic inequality, the scourge of our generation. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco studied 35 people, some of whom received a placebo, others tolcapone. Participants then were asked to divide money between themselves and someone they didn’t know.

Hazard a guess at the results? Those who took tolcapone, a chemical that prolongs the effects of dopamine, which is associated with reward and motivation, divided the money in a “fairer, more egalitarian way.’’ Under the influence, the study subjects were both more sensitive and less tolerant of the perceived money gap between participant and stranger — further proof that our genetic makeup may have considerable influence over our behavior, particularly in social situations. Which may translate to this equation: Selfish parents = selfish children.

Okay, okay, so I’m simplifying. Five milligrams of tolcapone twice a day may not resolve a pernicious social issue, but it does hint at how the biological exchanges in our brain make us act in certain ways.

“We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,’’ Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and UC Berkeley assistant professor, told a San Francisco Weekly editor. "Our study doesn’t reject this notion, but it does show how the trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain."

This finding made news for obvious reasons. Targeted medications could one day treat what we now consider social misbehaviors. Researchers also believe more studies may help scientists understand the relationship between brains altered by dopamine and illnesses such as schizophrenia and addiction.

What interests me, however, is that we don’t seem to be too far off from the concept of biology as destiny. Or …or of biology as excuse and exoneration.

A couple of days after I read about this study, I babysat my two youngest granddaughters, the oldest of whom has discovered the power of language. She brandishes each word like a weapon — for good and for not-so-good. Gurgles have given way to a heartfelt “I-love-you’’ but also the oft-repeated “Mine!’’ Thinking back on the children I’ve raised and those I’ve known, I dare say that mine! is probably among the first words mastered by a toddler. It takes a long time for a kid to understand the concept of sharing. Visit a daycare if you doubt me.

Maybe this proves we’re inherently selfish. Maybe it establishes us as a venal species whose individual egotism varies only by degrees. Sigh. Makes you want to crawl into a cave, doesn’t it?

But wait, wait. How then can we explain soaring acts of altruism? The charity of billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. The risk taken by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. The Samaritan who dives into a canal to save a drowning child. All deeds done without chemical help but with plenty of courage and heart.

So, yes, maybe sometime in the not-too-distant future, we might be able to wipe out egotism. Erase unfair disparity. But that seems a long, long way off. For now we best act on our good instincts. To those whom much is given — that’s most of us, by the way — much is expected.

Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.

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