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Human pheromones and altruism

Posted on July 13, 2012 by James Kohl.

I responded to a question about activation of brain regions associated with empathy and altruistic behavior with my concept of how cognition and affect must be separated so that we can better understand altruistic behavior. A new study suggests that a brain region, which is associated the act of taking the perspective of another person, is a critical determinant of altruistic behavior. [Jargon: The results may indicate that the TPJ provides ongoing modulation of PFC activity, which suggests that TPJ aligns self vs non-self differences to their emotional representation in the PFC.]  Of course, that means that few people outside the discipline of cognitive neuroscience will understand much of the following information, which I will use in an attempt to make sense of the concepts involved in linking self vs non-self differences to altruistic behavior. But, as anyone reading my blog posts can see, they are frequently geared to specialists in neuroscience.

To start with, I’ll use the conclusion from a body of work reviewed at this link: “Cognition and affect must be separated for the purpose of study, but they must work together if we are to be whole.” Similarly, in a recently published paper: Pavlovian valuation systems in learning and decision making  we can read learn that “Pavlovian processes can be separated based upon computational intensity into at least two systems, subserved by discrete but related neural circuits. We have described an ‘affective’ learning system that is embedded in a serial circuit between the CeA, VTA, and the ventral striatum, and a ‘cognitive’ system embedded in a circuit linking OFC, BLA, and ventral striatum.”

Separation of unconsious affect from conscious effect

In the context of altruism attributed to self vs non-self (i.e., immune system) similarities / differences and neuroanatomical structures, I think it is important to first recognize the role of Pavlovian/classical conditioning in unconscious affect and distinguish it from the role of operant conditioning and consciously perceived effect as indicated in the article on Pavlovian valuation systems. Others, for example, are beginning to better understand that the effect of sensory input on hormones is how sensory input it affects our altruistic behavior. But if they fully understand this, , how do they portray differences in the role of operant conditioning / ‘training’ in cognition? Clearly, there are more questions than answers in the domain of cognitive neuroscience.

Is cognition actively involved in altruistic behavior? Does anyone still think that ‘training’ can affect altruistic behavior without the ‘first cause’ of sensory input that directly effects hormones via receptor-mediated events? Does everyone understand that the early beginnings of extrauterine life in placental mammals are found in utero and that the responses to postnatal sensory input are genetically predisposed (e.g., ‘programmed’ / organized before birth)? Is altruistic behavior genetically predisposed and then activated by sensory input like it is in the honeybee model organism? (What the queen bee eats determines her pheromone production and everything else about the interactions in the colony, including the neuroanatomy of the worker bees’ brains.)

For concision see: Kohl, J.V. (2012) Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 2: 17338. DOI: 10.3402/snp.v2i0.17338.

If others do not understand something specific about olfactory/pheromonal primacy versus cognition in species from microbes to man, why have I not seen any questions about my representations of nutrient chemical-dependent and pheromone-dependent behavior or about the context (adaptive evolution via ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction)?

From the first article linked above:

“…dissmell is the physiological mechanism underlying prejudice, in which we reject a person or a concept before trying or testing it personally”

I get the impression that others think my concept of evolved cognition “stinks”. If so, it is less likely to be extended to explanations of altruistic behavior and it will not be offered as an alternative to attempts to ‘train’ people to behave better.

The point of my published works is to eventually have others understand the biology of their behavior, because I believe in the old adage: knowledge is power. Do you think that the ability to train people to behave better based on cognition is as powerful as teaching them more about why they often behave badly instead of altruistically?

The honeybee model organism suggests that cognition is not required. This raises the question of whether or not we could train honeybees to not exhibit behaviors that we think are altruistic. Is there a model for that?

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James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl




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