Saturday, November 23, 2013

Jan Groenveld - Social Psychology and Group Dynamics of Cults


This is a real basic overview of cult structure and behavior, written by Jan Groenveld, a woman who had been both a Jehovah's Witness and a Mormon. Here is a brief background from Wikipedia:
Jan Groenveld (1945 – 22 October 2002) was a former member of the LDS Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses. She spent a total of fifteen years in these organizations before leaving them in 1975. After her negative experiences in these organizations, she resolved to make more information about what she saw as "cults" available to the general public. Her personal experiences involving these groups were featured in Richard Guilliatt's book, Talk of the Devil.

Groenveld coined the often quoted phrase:

“The most dangerous lie is that which most closely resembles the truth.”

The author offers Jehovah's Witnesses as an example for several of her points below. Smaller organizations often have similar traits in a smaller scale. Additionally, a lot of this information applies to charismatic teachers and spiritual leaders, as well.


Written by Jan Groenveld
May be distributed freely providing it contains the above identifying information and the text is not altered in any way.
Studies have shown that today's cults use a stronger form of control than those of 50 years ago. The advent of new psychological experiments in the 60's and 70's have produced the modern methods of mind control which are far more sophisticated than the BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION TECHNIQUES and THOUGHT REFORM developed by the Chinese. To understand mind control you need a basic understanding of Behavior Modification Techniques.

What is

Simply described, it is "reward or punishment for actions" association. It was used on you as a child whenever you were being commended or otherwise for your behavior.

Taking away a privilege is usually a sure-fire method to persuading a child to change its behavior when that child is old enough to under-stand the process. Praising a child for doing good is another method of changing behavior, especially in the child who is anxious to please. The rod of education applied to the seat of learning is another method of bringing about a desired behavior change.

When behavior modification techniques such as these are applied in a loving, caring and consistent way, the child changes their behavior without holding feelings of resentment. However, if these techniques are perverted in any way, damage is done to the child's psyche, their emotions, e.g., the abused child syndrome. Cults use a sophisticated and perverted form of behavior modification which damages an individual’s emotions.

Leon Festinger is a psychologist who studied groups that predicted the end of the world. He found that most members became stronger than ever when the prophecy failed. His investigation revealed that members had to find a way to cope psychologically with the failure. They needed to maintain order and meaning in their life. They needed to think they were acting according to their self-image and values. Festinger described this contradiction which they had to overcome as what has become known as the Cognitive Dissonance Theory.
The three components he described are:

Each component has a powerful effect on the other two: CHANGE ONE AND THE OTHERS WILL TEND TO FOLLOW. When all three change the individual undergoes a complete change. Festinger summarized the basic principle:

"If you change a person's behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance."

When there is a conflict between thoughts, feelings or behavior, then those in conflict will change to minimize the contradiction. This is because a person can only tolerate a certain amount of discrepancy between these components which make up his identity. In cults this dissonance is created to exploit and control them.

Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control, added a fourth component to Festinger's: CONTROL OF INFORMATION

By controlling the information one receives you can control and restrict the individual's ability to think for himself. You limit what he is able to think about. 
BEHAVIOR CONTROL - The control of an individual's physical reality

This can include control of where he lives, what he eats, his clothing, sleep, job, rituals etc. This is why most cults have a stringent schedule for members. There is always something to do in destructive cults. Each cult has its own distinctive set of behaviors that bind it together. This control is so powerful that the cult member will actually participate in their own punishment and come to believe he actually deserves it! No one can command a person's thoughts but IF YOU CAN CONTROL BEHAVIOR THEN HEARTS AND MINDS WILL FOLLOW.

THOUGHT CONTROL - The control of an individual's thought processes
The indoctrination of members so thoroughly that they will manipulate their own thought processes. The ideology is internalized as "the truth". Incoming information is filtered through the beliefs that also regulates how this information is thought about.
The cult has its own language which further regulates how a person thinks. This puts a great barrier between cult members and outsiders.

Another form of control is "thought stopping" techniques. This can take many forms: chanting, meditating, singing, humming, tongues (some even pay money to learn it), concentrated praying, etc. The use of these techniques short-circuits the persons' ability to test reality. The person can only think positive thoughts about the group. If there is a problem the member assumes responsibility and works harder.

EMOTIONAL CONTROL - The control of the individual’s emotional life

This manipulates a person's range of feelings. Guilt and fear are used to keep control. Cult members cannot see the control by guilt and like other abuse victims are conditioned to blame themselves when things are wrong, even grateful when a leader points their transgressions. 
Fear is used to manipulate two ways. The first is to create an outside enemy (we vs them) who is persecuting you. The second is the fear of punishment by the leaders if you are not "good enough." Being "good enough" is following the ideology perfectly. The most powerful emotional control is phobia indoctrination. This can give the person a panic reaction at the very thought of leaving the group. It is almost impossible to conceive that there is any life outside the group. There is no physical gun held to their heads but the psychological gun is just as if not more powerful.

INFORMATION CONTROL - The control of the individual’s information sources
Deny a person the information needed to make a sound judgment and he will be incapable of doing so. People are trapped in cults because they are denied both the access to the critical information they need to assess their situation. The psychological chains on their minds are just as powerful as if they were locked away physically from society. So strong is this psychological process they also lack the properly functioning internal mechanism to process any critical information placed in front of them. 

Mind Control is a PROCESS of eradicating former beliefs and instituting new beliefs in their place through the use of COERCIVE persuasion. It is a PROCESS which is designed to break a person's independence and individuality and replace it with the ideology clone. The Chinese called this process "thought reform" which was poorly translated into English as "brain-washing".

Brain-washing is now considered to be a different process to thought reform or mind control. In brain-washing the victim knows who is the enemy. An example is American Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by a terrorist group. Through physical abuse she finally became a member of the group and took part in terrorist activities and bank robberies. 
Thought control is more subtle. The victim doesn't know who is the enemy because the enemy seems like their best friend who only has their best interests at heart. 
Cults practice a more refined form of thought control than that used by the Chinese. Leading psychologist, Dr Margaret Singer, said cults do it better than the Chinese because it is easier to get people to do what you want through manipulating them with guilt and anxiety. During this process the prospective recruit is re-educated and will abandon the precepts he has learnt from life for the "truth" or "enlightenment" offered by the group. In some cults this is done over a long period of time; Other cults can bring about this change within 48 hours. Whichever way the process takes place the results are the same. The individual has undergone a total change in personality and is often unrecognizable by their family. 
The process of thought control has been documented by Robert J Lifton who researched what happened to the American prisoners of the Communist Chinese. He labeled the steps which have become the standard by which to judge whether a group is using "brain-washing" or "thought reform" on its recruits. 
Robert J Lifton's research showed that -
"These criteria consist of eight psychological themes which are predominant within the social field of the thought reform milieu. Each has a totalistic quality; each depends upon an equally absolute philosophical assumption; and each mobilizes certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarizing nature. Psychological theme, philosophical rationale, and polarized individual tendencies are interdependent; they require, rather than directly cause, each other. In combination they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats." (Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism, p 420)
The eight marks noted by Lifton are: 
1. MILIEU CONTROL - Control of the Environment and Communication
The control of human communication is the most basic feature of the thought reform environment. This is the control of what the individual sees, hears, reads, writes, experiences and expresses. It goes even further than that, and controls the individuals communication with himself - his own thoughts. 
Everything other than their beliefs is excluded. The organization appears to be omniscient. They seem to know everything that is going on. Reality is their exclusive possession. In this environment the individual is deprived of the combination of external information and internal reflection required to test reality and to maintain a measure of identity separate from his environment. The individual can feel victimized by his controllers and feel the hostility of suffocation - the resentful awareness that his striving toward new information, independent judgment and self-expression are being thwarted. 
EXAMPLE - Jehovah's Witnesses are a classical example of a closed community living within and mixing with the wider community. Because they are so well known we have used them as an example.

In Jehovah's Witnesses

- You could "go beyond the 'truth' - beyond what they taught. This showed you were thinking for yourself and put yourself above leadership. Those moving ahead of the Organization are counseled
- No gatherings other than those allowed or organized by organization (1982).
- Not making comments from your own thoughts at the meetings. Only comments from the study articles are permitted. No independent thinking is permitted.
- The organization always seemed to know what was going on in your congregation and article appeared in Watchtower publications just at the right time ("food at the proper time"). This was done through Circuit Servants reports to Headquarters.
- Use of 'publisher record cards' etc. to monitor activities of members. Watchtower is aware of trends etc. by strict reporting and control of individual Witnesses activities.
- Report on fellow brothers & sisters (cannot get away from organization)
- Monitoring or observation of disfellowshipped or marked people.
- Non Witnesses are viewed as 'bad association'
- Worldly education discouraged - better to go door-to-door
- Employment that takes up time which should be devoted to Watchtower activities is also discouraged.
- Should be 'buying out the opportune time' in 'theocratic activities'.
- Taught to indoctrinate self!
- 'Shepherding' of those who fall behind.
2. MYSTICAL MANIPULATION - The Mystique of the Organization
This seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. For the manipulated person this assumes a near-mystical quality. This is not just a power trip by the manipulators. They have a sense of "higher purpose" and see themselves as being the "keepers of the truth." By becoming the instruments of their own mystique, they create a mystical aura around the manipulating institution - the Party, the Government, the Organization, etc. They are the chosen agents to carry out this mystical imperative. 
The pursuit of this mystical imperative supersedes all considerations of decency of immediate human welfare. The end justifies the means. You can lie, deceive or whatever to those outside the organization. Association with the "outside" is only to benefit their own cause in some way. Some cults like Moonies and Hare Krishna's call their deception "heavenly deception" or "transcendental trickery". Members believe in the ideology to such a degree that they rationalize these deceptions. Members are kept in a frenzy of cult related activities. There is little time or energy to think about their lifestyle. 
"The psychology of the pawn" - This person feels unable to escape from forces he sees more powerful than himself. His way of dealing with this is to adapt to them. He learns how to anticipate problems with the organization and to manipulate events to avoid incriminating himself. This is the person who has been in the organization long enough, knows something is wrong, is on the verge of leaving then suddenly becomes very loyal. They sell out to the organization and will turn in friends who may have confided in them.
In Jehovah's Witnesses
- "Theocratic strategy" - If you don't have a right to know the truth it is OK to lie to you. (See "Insight" under 'Lie')
- Avoid telling prospects- No blood, holidays, family, friends, etc
- Bring someone new each time they call so prospect gets to know the people at the Kingdom Hall when they attend. (Planned spontaneity)
- The ideology supersedes the welfare of the individual. They are not involved in charities outside the group [or in the group].
- Not helping fellow memmbers to the detriment of promoting the ideology. This is more important than helping the sick & elderly.
- Prayers are general - for the organization not the needs of the individual. See God as not interested in you as a person.
- Blessed only for effort in promoting the Kingdom.
- Ability of organization to accomplish the 'preaching work' seen as evidence of Jehovah's blessing, direction and angelic help
- Jehovah 'sifts out' those not truly 'in the truth', those without 'the right heart condition' which is why people leave or must be disfellowshipped. No one leaves legitimately.
3. DEMAND FOR PURITY - Everything is black & white
Pure and impure is defined by the ideology of the organization. Only those ideas, feelings and actions consistent with the ideology and policy are good. The individual conscience is not reliable. The philosophical assumption is that absolute purity is attainable and that anything done in the name of this purity is moral. By defining and manipulating the criteria of purity and conducting an all-out war on impurity (dissension especially) the organization creates a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, the demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is alien to the human condition. 
Under these conditions the individual expects humiliation, ostracism and punishment because of his inability to live up to the criteria and lives in a constant state of guilt and shame. Since the organization is the ultimate judge of good and evil, this guilt and shame is used to manipulate and control members. The organization becomes an authority without limit in the eyes of members and their power is nowhere more evident than in their capacity to "forgive".
All impurities are seen to originate from "outside" (the world). Therefore, one of the best ways to relieve himself of the burden of guilt is to denounce these with great hostility. The more guilty he feels, the greater his hatred, the more hostile is his denouncement. Organizationally this eventually leads to purges of heretics, mass hatred and religious holy wars. The group will point to the mistakes of all other belief systems while promoting their own purity. This gives the impression that their organization is perfect, clean and pure as a people or group.
In Jehovah's Witnesses
- Dress and grooming have been laid down at various times. These rules change at the whim of the leaders.
No pantsuits for ladies - No beards or moustaches on men
Short hair on men - No colored shirts for men
No gold rimmed glasses - Certain styles of clothing prohibited
- Only 2 organizations: Jehovah's and Satan's. You cannot be part of both.
- World has no conscience - all dishonest
- Must keep clear of worldly celebrations (Christmas, Easter, Birthdays, Mother's & Father's Day, Thanksgiving etc)
- Loyalty displayed through meeting attendance and participation, field service, choice of marriage partners [strong 'in the truth'], shunning disfellowshipped relatives and friends.
4. CULT OF CONFESSION - Reporting to leadership
This is closely related to the demand for purity. Confession is carried beyond the ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for these vulnerabilities. 
Totalist confession is an act of self-surrender, the expression of the merging of the individual and environment. There is a dissolution of self, talents, and money. It’s about conformity.
The cult of confession has effects quite the reverse of its ideal of total exposure; rather than eliminating personal secrets, it increases and intensifies them.

The individual becomes caught up in continuous conflict over which secrets to preserve and which to surrender, over ways to reveal lesser secrets can be revealed and ways to protect more important ones.

The cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain reasonable balance between worth and humility.
In Jehovah's Witnesses
- Confessing infringements to an Elder.
- Putting in field reports (test of spirituality) [A monthly report of one's activities for that month. How many hours door-knocking; number of books and magazines sold; number of people one studied doctrine with etc.]
- Accept orders without question. Ask "How high" when told to jump.
- Any who are aware of another's sin must put this one in to the elders or the guilt will rest on their shoulders.
- Congregation is made aware of the sin through talks and restrictions placed on guilty ones.
5. SACRED SCIENCE - Absolute "Truth"
Their "truth" is the absolute truth. It is sacred – beyond questioning. There is a reverence demanded for the leadership. They have ALL the answers. Only to them is given the revelation of "truth". 
The ultimate moral vision becomes the ultimate science and the person who dares to criticize it, or even think criticism, is immoral, irreverent and "unscientific".
The assumption here is not so much that man can be God, but rather that man's IDEAS can be God. 
This gives sense of security to the member. They are confident they can get the answer to the most difficult problem or question.
In Jehovah's Witnesses
- You can be disfellowshipped (kicked out) for daring to question what is taught in their publications.
- Watchtower demands full devotion of members. Must not question the Organization (= questioning God)
- There is an answer to everything, if you cannot find it in the publications you must 'wait on Jehovah' and not 'push ahead'.
- Organization itself will survive Armageddon but individual Jehovah's Witnesses have no such assurance.
6. LOADING THE LANGUAGE - Thought terminating clichés

Everything is compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.

There are "good" terms which represents the groups ideology and "evil" terms to represent everything outside which is to be rejected. Totalist language is intensely divisive, all-encompassing jargon, unmercifully judging. To those outside the group this language is tedious - the language of non-thought.

This effectively isolates members from outside world. The only people who understand you are other members. Other members can tell if you are really one of them by how you talk.

This narrowness of the language is constricting. The individual is linguistically deprived because language is central to the human experience and his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely restricted.

While initially this loaded language can give a sense of security to the new believer, an uneasiness develops over time. This uneasiness may result in a withdrawal into the system and he preaches even harder to hide his problem and demonstrate his loyalty. It may also produce an inner division and the individual will publicly give the right performance while privately have his own thoughts.

Either way, his imagination becomes increasingly disassociated from his actual life experiences and may even tend to atrophy from disuse.

e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses

- Theocratic strategy - "ark of salvation" - "new light"
- "meat in due season" - "faithful & discreet slave" - "apostate"
- "The anointed" - Book study - Christendom
- "Christ Jesus" instead of "Jesus Christ"
- 'back calls' now called 'return visits' (terminology changes indicate who might be falling behind or who is not really a member)
- "Jehovah will take care of it in his due time."
- "It's the truth" - doesn't matter if they make a mistake
- Where else is there to go?
- Worldly - Governing Body - New System of Things
7. DOCTRINE OVER PERSON - Doctrine supersedes human experience

The ideological myth merges with their "truth" and the resulting deduction can be so overpowering and coercive that is simply replaces reality. Consequently past events can be altered, rewritten or even ignored to make them consistent with the current reality. This alteration is especially lethal when the distortions are imposed on the individual's memory.

They demand character and identity of a person be reshaped to fit their clone of mentality. The individual must fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mold instead of developing their own potential and personality.

The underlying assumption is that the doctrine - including its mythological elements - is ultimately more valid, true and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience. The individual under such pressure is propelled into an intense conflict with his own sense of integrity, a struggle which take place in relation to polarized feelings if sincerity and insincerity.

Absolute sincerity is demanded by the group yet this must be put to one side when changes take place the individual has to deny the original belief ever existed. Personal feelings are suppressed and members must appear to be contented and enthusiastic at all times.

Some cults believe that all illness is a result of lack of faith and evidence of sin in your life. These things have to be prayed away and medical attention is ignored as a "sign of faith."

In Jehovah's Witnesses

- "There is no life outside the organization" so when they see people who have made a life outside they revert back to doctrine over what they see.
- If an experience doesn't fit, it must be demons.
- Will ignore needs of others because doctrine overrides human experience, i.e., will ignore needs of disfellowshipped or marked persons no matter how serious those needs are.
- Those who were JW's before 1975 and are still JW's will deny they ever believed Armageddon was due that year - even those who sold homes, delayed medical treatment etc.
- Watchtower has final authority even over personal experience. Blood transfusions, etc. Conscience matters are discussed only in the light of Watchtower doctrine (not left to individuals' consciences).
8. DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE - Who is worthy to live

They have the right to decide who is worthy of life and who isn't. They also decide which history books are accurate and which are not. Those in the organization are worthy of life; those outside worthy of death. The outsiders can be permitted to live if they change and become an insider. Members live in fear of being pronounced "dead".

They have a fear of annihilation or extinction. The emotional conflict is one of "being vs nothingness".

Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon mission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the organization. Should he stray from the "truth" his right to exist may be withdrawn and he is pronounced "dead".

In Jehovah's Witnesses
- "Sheep and goats" - how one responds to "Christ's brothers" decides their future. ("Christ's brothers" are those who rule the organization. How you respond to their message as carried by their messengers decides your eternal future).
- Elders decide who is worthy of life at Judicial Committee meetings.
- They decide who is worthy of a resurrection - (Sodom & Gommorah).
- Disfellowshiping 'sinners' denies them any hope for a future outside the Organization.
- They will blatantly lie to achieve goals and consider this to be "theocratic strategy".
- Any information contrary to the Watchtower 'system' is not considered worth listening to or reading.
- Witnesses are forbidden to discuss such information, especially if is considered 'apostate' [put together by former members]

The more clearly these eight points are obvious, the greater the resemblance to ideological totalism. The more an organization utilizes such totalist devices to change individuals, the greater its resemblance to thought reform.

Remember . . . A group does not have to be religious to be cultic in behavior. High demand groups can be commercial, political and psychological. Be aware, especially if you are a bright, intelligent and idealistic person. The most likely person to be caught up in this type of behavioral system is the one who says "I won't get caught. It will never happen to me. I am too intelligent for that sort of thing."

Written by Jan Groenveld
Internet Address:
Fidonet Address : 3:640/316
(c) Cult Awareness & Information Centre, PO Box 2444,
Mansfield 4122, Australia,
May be distributed freely providing it contains the above identifying information and the text is not altered in any way.

Sacred Silence in Sufism and the Vedanta - 2013 Festival of Faiths

This is a lengthy and interesting talk from this Fall 2013's Festival of Faiths, a festival devoted to Sacred Silence: Pathway to Compassion. Forum presentations focused on compassion and common action that our community of many faiths can embrace.

From Wikipedia:
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a Muslim Persian philosopher and renowned scholar of comparative religion, a lifelong student and follower of Frithjof Schuon, and writes in the fields of Islamic esoterism, Sufism, philosophy of science, and metaphysics.

Nasr was the first Muslim to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures, and in year 2000, a volume was devoted to him in the Library of Living Philosophers. Professor Nasr speaks and writes based on the doctrine and the viewpoints of the perennial philosophy on subjects such as philosophy, religion, spirituality, music, art, architecture, science, literature, civilizational dialogues, and the natural environment.
From Spiritual Paths:
Swami Atmarupananda is a renowned scholar, teacher, and Monk of the Ramakrishna Order of India, a monastic organization dedicated to the teaching of Vedanta. He joined the Order in 1969 and spent many years in India engaged in monastic, scholarly and spiritual training. He combines a contemplative and mystical approach with a extraordinary scholarly training and a good sense of humor that are helpful in explaining subtle concepts of Hinduism to Western students.

Sacred Silence in Sufism and the Vedanta - 2013 Festival of Faiths

Published on May 27, 2013
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world's leading experts on Islamic science and spirituality, and Swami Atmarupananda, renowned teacher of Hinduism, will talk about Compassion as being intrinsic to who we really are -- the true Self, the "image of God" which is free of all alienation. And that is wisdom itself, love itself, discovered in inner silence -- the still point that unites us to both God and the universe.

Friday, November 22, 2013

MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD: Current Research - Michael Mithoefer & Annie Mithoefer

There is considerable and overwhelmingly convincing evidence for the efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. Every new study increases the evidence for and, finally, seems to reduce the resistance to further research in human subjects.

MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD: Current Research - Michael Mithoefer & Annie Mithoefer

Published on Nov 3, 2013

MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD: Current Research with Veterans, Firefighters, and Police Officers - Michael Mithoefer, MD and Annie Mithoefer, BSN

We will present a brief description of the chronology and results of the first completed clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), followed by the protocol design and preliminary results of our current ongoing study with military veterans, firefighters, and police officers suffering from chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. The nature of the therapeutic process will be illustrated with clinical vignettes and quotes from study sessions.

Michael Mithoefer, MD, is a psychiatrist who practices in Charleston, S.C., where he divides his time between clinical research and outpatient clinical practice specializing in treating posttraumatic stress disorder with an emphasis on experiential methods of psychotherapy. He is Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and is a Grof-certified Holotropic Breathwork Facilitator, a Certified Internal Family Systems Therapist, and is trained in EMDR. He and his wife, Annie Mithoefer, completed a MAPS-sponsored Phase 2 clinical trial testing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and are currently conducting a second trial with military veterans, firefighters, and police officers as well as trainings for therapists in other MAPS-sponsored studies. Dr. Mithoefer is medical monitor for MAPS-sponsored clinical trials in Europe, the Middle East, Canada, and the US. Before going into psychiatry in 1995, he practiced emergency medicine for ten years and is currently board certified in Psychiatry, Emergency Medicine, and Internal Medicine.

Annie Mithoefer, BSN, is a psychiatric nurse, Grof-certified Holotropic Breathwork Practitioner, and is trained in Hakomi Therapy. She and her husband, Dr. Michael Mithoefer, divide their time between Clinical Research with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and work with individual psychotherapy clients in their private practice. They are co-therapists for MAPS-sponsored clinical trials including a completed Phase 2 study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD and an ongoing study with military veterans, firefighters, and police officers with PTSD unresponsive to previous treatment. They also conduct training programs for other MAPS-sponsored research teams.

At Psychedelic Science 2013, over 100 of the world's leading researchers and more than 1,900 international attendees gathered to share recent findings on the benefits and risks of LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, ibogaine, 2C-B, ketamine, DMT, marijuana, and more, over three days of conference presentations, and two days of pre- and post-conference workshops.

Would an 'Anti-Ketamine' Also Treat Depression?

Ketamine works, at the explanatory level (the actual mechanism is still debatable), by blocking one of the targets for the neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain, the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor. A new study in Biological Psychiatry reports that enhancing, instead of blocking, that same target - the NMDA glutamate receptor - also causes antidepressant-like effects.

Would an 'Anti-Ketamine' Also Treat Depression?

Nov. 18, 2013 — Thirteen years ago, an article in this journal first reported that the anesthetic medication, ketamine, showed evidence of producing rapid antidepressant effects in depressed patients who had not responded to prior treatments. Ketamine works by blocking one of the targets for the neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain, the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor.

Now, a new study in Biological Psychiatry reports that enhancing, instead of blocking, that same target -- the NMDA glutamate receptor -- also causes antidepressant-like effects.

Scientists theorize that NMDA receptor activity plays an important role in the pathophysiology of depression, and that normalizing its functioning can, potentially, restore mood to normal levels.

Prior studies have already shown that the underlying biology is quite complex, indicating that both hyperfunction and hypofunction of the NMDA receptor is somehow involved. But, most studies have focused on antagonizing, or blocking, the receptor, and until now, studies investigating NMDA enhancement have been in the early phases.

Sarcosine is one such compound that acts by enhancing NMDA function. Collaborators from China Medical University Hospital in Taiwan and the University of California in Los Angeles studied sarcosine in an animal model of depression and, separately, in a clinical trial of depressed patients.

"We found that enhancing NMDA function can improve depression-like behaviors in rodent models and in human depression," said Dr. Hsien-Yuan Lane, the corresponding author on the article.

In the clinical portion of the study, they conducted a 6-week trial where 40 depressed patients were randomly assigned to receive sarcosine or citalopram (Celexa), an antidepressant already on the market that was used as a comparison drug. Neither the patients nor their doctors knew which one they were receiving.

Compared to citalopram, patients receiving sarcosine reported significantly improved mood scores, were more likely to experience relief of their depression symptoms, and were more likely to continue in the study. There were no major side effects in either group, but patients receiving citalopram reported more relatively minor side effects than the patients being treated with sarcosine.

"It will be important to understand how sarcosine, which enhances NMDA receptor function, produces the interesting effects reported in this study. There are ways that its effects, paradoxically, might converge with those of ketamine, a drug that blocks NMDA receptors," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "For example, both compounds may enhance neuroplasticity, the capacity to remodel brain networks through experience. Also, both potentially attenuate signaling through NMDA receptors, ketamine with single doses and sarcosine, with long-term administration, by evoking an adaptive down regulation of NMDA receptors."

Better understanding the reported findings may help to advance the development of medication treatments for patients who do not respond to available treatments. This is an important goal, with estimates indicating that as many as half of all patients do not experience complete relief of their depression.

Full Citation:
Chih-Chia Huang, I-Hua Wei, Chieh-Liang Huang, Kuang-Ti Chen, Mang-Hung Tsai, Priscilla Tsai, Rene Tun, Kuo-Hao Huang, Yue-Cune Chang, Hsien-Yuan Lane, Guochuan Emil Tsai. (2013, Nov 15). Inhibition of Glycine Transporter-I as a Novel Mechanism for the Treatment of Depression. Biological Psychiatry, 74(10): 734-741. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.02.020



Antidepressants, aiming at monoaminergic neurotransmission, exhibit delayed onset of action, limited efficacy, and poor compliance. Glutamatergic neurotransmission is involved in depression. However, it is unclear whether enhancement of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) subtype glutamate receptor can be a treatment for depression.


We studied sarcosine, a glycine transporter-I inhibitor that potentiates NMDA function, in animal models and in depressed patients. We investigated its effects in forced swim test, tail suspension test, elevated plus maze test, novelty-suppressed feeding test, and chronic unpredictable stress test in rats and conducted a 6-week randomized, double-blinded, citalopram-controlled trial in 40 patients with major depressive disorder. Clinical efficacy and side effects were assessed biweekly, with the main outcomes of Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, Global Assessment of Function, and remission rate. The time course of response and dropout rates was also compared.


Sarcosine decreased immobility in the forced swim test and tail suspension test, reduced the latency to feed in the novelty-suppressed feeding test, and reversed behavioral deficits caused by chronic unpredictable stress test, which are characteristics for an antidepressant. In the clinical study, sarcosine substantially improved scores of Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, Clinical Global Impression, and Global Assessment of Function more than citalopram treatment. Sarcosine-treated patients were much more likely and quicker to remit and less likely to drop out. Sarcosine was well tolerated without significant side effects.


Our preliminary findings suggest that enhancing NMDA function can improve depression-like behaviors in rodent models and in human depression. Establishment of glycine transporter-I inhibition as a novel treatment for depression waits for confirmation by further proof-of-principle studies.

Compassion Research in Neuroscience: Defining Compassion, Empathy & Altruism - Economic, Philosophical & Contemplative Perspectives

The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

This video is a from a 2009 conference, but it's still an interesting talk. The speakers in this video are Brian Knutson, PhD, Richard Davidson, PhD, Tania Singer, PhD, Bill Mobley, MD, PhD.

Compassion Research in Neuroscience: Defining Compassion, Empathy & Altruism - Economic, Philosophical & Contemplative Perspectives

“Defining Compassion, Empathy & Altruism: Scientific, Economic, Philosophical & Contemplative Perspectives,” which took place March 4th to 5th 2009, was put on by CCARE. This part of the conference was the session on Compassion Research in Neuroscience. The speakers of this session were: Brian Knutson, PhD, Richard Davidson, PhD, Tania Singer, PhD, and Bill Mobley, MD, PhD.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Carl Zimmer - Fast-Paced Evolution in the Andes

Science is so cool.

Fast-Paced Evolution in the Andes

Published: November 7, 2013

Páramos, mountainous grasslands that flourish thousands of feet above sea level in the Andes, are hot spots of evolutionary change. (Santiago Madriñán Restrepo)

In 1799 the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and his companions set out from Caracas, Venezuela, to climb the Andes. They struggled up a mountainside enveloped in mist so thick they had to clamber over rocks by hand. When the fog cleared, von Humboldt was left astonished by the view. Vast grasslands stretched all around him, home to an astonishing number of different trees, shrubs and flowers.

“Nowhere, perhaps, can be found collected together, in so small a space, productions so beautiful and so remarkable in regard to the geography of plants,” he later wrote.

Von Humboldt had stumbled into a remarkable ecosystem, known as a Páramo. Páramos blanket the Andes in Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia, growing at altitudes 9,200 to 14,800 feet above sea level.

“They’re like islands in a sea of forest,” said Santiago Madriñán, an expert on Páramos at the University of the Andes in Colombia. All told, Páramos cover about 13,500 square miles — an area the size of Maryland. In that small space, Dr. Madriñán and other researchers have found 3,431 species of vascular plants, most of them found nowhere else on Earth. The Páramos are home to strange variations on familiar forms, such as a daisy known as Espeletia uribei that grows as tall as trees.

But according to a new study, the Páramos are even more remarkable than von Humboldt could have realized. They are the fastest evolving place on the planet.

Scientists have long known that in certain spots, evolution runs faster than normal. The Galápagos Islands, for example, are home to some 13 species of Darwin’s finches, which all evolved from a single group of birds that originally colonized them. The archipelago is just a few million years old, however, which means that all their diversity has evolved in a geologically short period of time.

In recent years, scientists have identified other regions where evolution is running fast. To measure its speed, researchers have looked at the DNA of species living in each place. The longer it has been since two species diverged from a common ancestor, the more time each lineage has had to accumulate mutations. Young species have relatively few mutations.

Dr. Madriñán has studied Páramos for over a decade, and he’s long suspected that evolution is running fast in them as well. “I don’t know if it was a hunch or what it was, but when you study the Páramos, it’s a marvelous place,” he said.

The geology also gave support to his hunch. The Andes started forming tens of millions of years ago, but it wasn’t until 2.5 million years ago that the northern Andes rose above the elevation where trees can survive. Only then could all the diversity of the Páramos emerge.

To calculate the speed of evolution in the Páramos, Dr. Madriñán and his colleagues surveyed 13 different lineages of plants that grow there. They estimated the rate at which species had split from each other in each lineage, and then combined those estimates into a single average. The scientists then looked at data on plants that grow in other fast-evolving places, such as Hawaii and the Mediterranean coast.

The results surpassed Dr. Madriñán’s suspicions. The Páramos weren’t just home to fast evolution, it turned out. Of the eight places he and his colleagues compared, the Páramos are evolving the fastest of all.

Other experts on evolutionary rates are intrigued by the new study, which was published last month in Frontiers in Genetics. “Of course these results are still very preliminary,” said Luis Valente of the University of Potsdam, noting that scientists have only sampled a few groups of plants from each evolutionary hot spot. But Dr. Valente thought the study persuasively demonstrates that the Páramos are a special place. “This may be a region where evolution is proceeding at a very fast pace, and where many new species may still be in the process of being formed,” he said.

Michael Sanderson of the University of Arizona thinks the contest won’t be settled definitively until biologists can draw large-scale evolutionary trees. “Then we’ll finally sort out the hottest hot spots,” he said.

Dr. Madriñán suspects that the peculiar climate of the Páramos is responsible for their fast evolution. Because the grasslands are at the equator, they are bathed in sunshine year-round. But to take advantage of that ample energy, the plants also have to contend with cold temperatures and harsh ultraviolet rays, not to mention weather that can turn on a dime. “You may be in total mist and then half an hour later you are in total sunshine,” Dr. Madriñán said.

When plants began to spread into the newly formed Páramos, Dr. Madriñán suspects, they evolved many solutions to surviving there. They specialized on different niches, from damp bogs to dry hillsides and stands of shrubs and trees. Páramo plants also evolved a wide range of defenses against the elements. Espeletia uribei, the daisy tree, grows white hairs on its flowers to protect them from damaging ultraviolet rays, while covering its stem with a thick layer of dead leaves to keep it warm.

Dr. Madriñán and his colleagues are now exploring the history of the plants to see if they can explain their remarkable speed. “Páramos are the new laboratory to study evolution happening at incredible rates,” he said.

~ A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2013, on page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: Fast-Paced Evolution in the Andes.

Freedom, Equality, and a Future Political Economy: The Structural Change We Need (The RSA)

An interesting an important discussion took place recently at the RSA in Britain - a discussion of what a possible economy in the future might look like, one that supports freedom, equality, and a basic structural change in the system.

Freedom, Equality and a Future Political Economy: the structural change we need

13th Nov 2013; Listen to the audio
Watch this event as a RSA Replay.

RSA Replay is now a featured playlist on our YouTube channel, it is the full recording of the event including audience Q&A. There will an edited high-res video version of the talk available in a couple of weeks time, and if you subscribe to our channel on YouTube - you'll get automatically notified whenever there's a new video.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is an internationally influential social and political theorist and philosopher. A former minister of Strategic Affairs in the Brazilian government, he is a prolific author of works of social theory, legal, political and economic thought, and philosophy, in which he develops a profound theory of self and society. As the Roscoe Pound Professor of Law at Harvard University, he has taught many of the US and world elite, including President Barack Obama.

In a special event at the RSA, Roberto Unger asks: where have both the free market right and the social democratic left gone wrong? What are the fundamental economic, political and social institutions we need? And how do we go about making them?

Speaker: Roberto Magabeira Unger, philosopher, social and political theorist and Roscoe Pound professor at Harvard Law School.

Chair: Anthony Painter, Director of the Independent Review of the Police Federation, and author of Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times.


Anthony Painter
Roberto Unger


The Left Alternative, Roberto Unger (Verso, 2009)
The Left Without a Future, Anthony Painter (I. B. Tauris, 2013)

Science of Compassion 2013 — Neuroscience and Cognitive Perspectives on Compassion

This video from The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) is from the CCARE Science of Compassion Summer Research Institute, co-sponsored by the Telluride Institute (July 20-25, 2013).

The purpose of the conference is outlined below, along with the bios of the speakers in the video below.

Science of Compassion 2013 — Neuroscience and Cognitive Perspectives

The purpose of the CCARE Science of Compassion Summer Research Institute, co-sponsored by the Telluride Institute, a five-day conference held in Summer 2013, was to advance research on compassion and altruism through collaboration, dialog, inquiry, education, and research.
This talk focused on the neuroscience and cognitive perspectives of compassion. Speakers include Drs. Stephanie Brown, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Gaelle Desbordes, and Clifford Saron.

* * * * *


The purpose of the CCARE Summer Research Institute, co-sponsored by the Telluride Institute, a five-day conference to be held in Summer 2013, is to advance research on compassion and altruism through collaboration, dialog, inquiry, education, and research.

Drawing from several disciplines including neuroscience, psychology, genetics, economics, and contemplative traditions, the CCARE Summer Research Institute aims to examine compassion, altruism and prosocial behavior from a wide perspective of scientific angles. In particular, the institute will explore and discuss the neural correlates, biological bases and antecedents of compassion; the effects of compassion on behavior, physiology, overall health, and the brain; and methods, techniques, and programs for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society-wide. Compassion education programs will also be integrated into the curriculum.

The long-term goal of the Summer Research Institute is to support young scientists who wish to focus their research on compassion, altruism, and prosocial behavior. Their participation in the Institute will allow them to deepen their knowledge of compassion research, receive training in compassion education and research programs, build collaborations and develop a network of like-minded scientists that can offer intellectual support and community. The Summer Research Institute will award competitive pilot research grants to outstanding participants whose research protocols promise to significantly further the field of compassion research.

Specific Goals

  • Provide an intensive training in the field of compassion research including operational definitions, biological underpinnings, and effects of compassion on behavior, physiology, overall health, and the brain
  • Foster dialog, research collaborations, and knowledge exchange between expert faculty and young researchers (graduate students and postdocs) in the field of compassion research
  • Delineate research questions and gaps in the field of compassion research in order to highlight new directions for research
  • Develop a community of young scientists (graduate students and post-docs) dedicated to researching compassion

* * * * *



Clifford Saron, Ph.D., University of California – Davis

Clifford Saron, Ph.D., is an Associate Research Scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California at Davis. He received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1999 studying the electrophysiology of interhemispheric visuomotor integration under the direction of Herbert Vaughan, Jr. Dr. Saron has had a long-standing interest in brain and behavioral effects of meditation practice and has been faculty at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute and is currently a member of the Program and Research Council of the Mind and Life Institute. In the early 1990′s he was centrally involved in a field research project investigating Tibetan Buddhist mind training in collaboration with Jose Cabezón, Richard Davidson, Francisco Varela, Alan Wallace and others under the auspices of the Private Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute. Currently, in collaboration with Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace and a consortium of over 30 scientists and researchers at UC Davis and elsewhere, he is Principal Investigator of The Shamatha Project, a unique longitudinal study of intensive meditation training based on the practice of meditative quiescence (shamatha) and cultivation of the four immeasureables (loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity). The project, focused on changes in attention-related skills and emotion regulation, is the most comprehensive multimethod study to date regarding the potential effects of long-term intensive meditation practice on basic mental and physical processes related to cognition, emotion, health physiology, and motivation. His other primary research interest focuses on investigating brain and behavioral correlates of sensory processing and multisensory integration in children on the autistic spectrum.


Stephanie Brown, Ph.D, Stony Brook University

Stephanie Brown is an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at SUNY Stony Brook and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. She received a B.S. degree in Psychology from the University of Washington, and a Ph. D. in Social Psychology from Arizona State University. She completed a 2-year N.I.M.H. postdoctoral training program in “Psychosocial Factors in Mental Health and Illness” at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Following her postdoctoral training, Dr. Brown received a research scientist career development award (K-01) to study whether dialysis patients who provide social support to others suffer fewer symptoms of depression. This project led to a series of empirical papers conducted with fellow Center faculty member Dylan Smith, suggesting that the health benefits of social contact are due to the provision, as opposed to the receipt, of social support. Dr. Brown spent three years as an Assistant Professor on the faculty in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at SUNY Stony Brook in December 2009. Dr. Brown’s research currently focuses on the neuro-affective mechanisms underlying altruistic and prosocial behavior and she has a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to examine the physiological consequences of helping others. Together with center member, Dylan Smith, Dr. Brown’s research examines (a) the role that other-focused motivational states play in stress regulation (b) the implications of helping-induced stress-regulation for physical health and longevity and (c) the contribution of other-focused motivational states and behaviors to the darker side of human experience including depression, suicidality, and PTSD. These lines of research are designed to shed light into the mechanisms underlying a caregiving motivational system, including its evolutionary origins and its implications for compassionate care, medicine, economic behavior, ethnic and international conflict, and other political attitudes and behaviors.


Gaëlle Desbordes, Ph.D., Research Fellow At The Athinoula A. Martinos Center And Harvard Medical School And A Visiting Scholar At Boston University

Gaëlle Desbordes, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging within the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a visiting scholar at Boston University. Trained as a neuroscientist (PhD, Boston University) and with a background in engineering and computer science, her current research focuses on the neuroscientific investigation of meditative practices—including compassion meditation—using brain imaging (functional MRI) and physiological measurements of the autonomic nervous system. She is the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind and Life Institute for her ongoing study of the neural and physiological correlates of advanced meditation practices. She is herself an experienced meditation practitioner with a particular interest in traditional contemplative methods for cultivating loving-kindness and compassion (e.g., Tibetan “mind training” or lo-jong methods). For the past four years she has worked in collaboration with Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi (Emory University) and Charles Raison (University of Arizona) on the Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation (CALM) study, a longitudinal study that examines how Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) affects emotional processing in the brain and the regulation of physiological responses to psychosocial stress. She is also on the neuroscience faculty at the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative—an ongoing effort overseen by HH the Dalai Lama aimed at implementing a comprehensive and sustainable science education program for Tibetan monks and nuns.


Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., The Greater Good Science Center, University of California – Berkeley

Emiliana Simon-Thomas earned her doctorate in Cognition Brain and Behavior at UC Berkeley. Using behavioral, EEG and fMRI methods, her dissertation examined how negative states like fear and aversion influence thinking and decision-making.
During her postdoc, Emiliana moved into the positive terrain to study care/nurturance, love of humanity, compassion and awe under the mentorship of Dacher Keltner. From signaling, perceiving and self-reporting of emotions to peripheral autonomic and neural indices of emotion to understanding the psychosocial benefits of emotional authenticity and connection, Emiliana continues to examine the potential for enhancing everything pro-social.

Previously the Associate Director/Senior Scientist at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, Emiliana joins the Greater Good Science Center with great enthusiasm for her hometown, Berkeley and heartfelt ambition to support and grow Greater Good Science to new heights, widths and depths!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fr. Richard Rohr: Finding God in the Depths of SIlence


From this May 2013's Festival of Faiths, this is a wonderful talk by Fr. Richard Rohr, the heir apparent to the contemplative lineage of Fr. Thomas Keating (Centering Prayer). Fr. Rohr is the author of several excellent books, including Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (2003), The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (2009), Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (2013), and Yes, and...: Daily Meditations (2013), among many other books.

Fr. Rohr's vision of a contemplative, nondual Christianity has been a blessing to several of my Christian clients, even those who see Catholicism as essentially broken. As a non-Christian, I enjoy his sense of the possible within silence . . . and the conviction that we all can find the compassion and vitality of being fully alive.

Fr. Richard Rohr: Finding God in the Depths of Silence

Published on May 15, 2013

Fr. Richard Rohr, ecumenical teacher, author and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

Rohr shares his perspective on Silence as the only thing broad enough and deep enough to hold all of the contradictions and paradoxes of Full Reality and our own reality, too. 99.9% of the known universe is silent, and it is in this space that the force fields of life and compassion dwell and expand. We can live there too!

The 2013 May edition of the Festival of Faiths was presented in partnership with:

Maternal Stress Prior to Conception May Influence Genetic Expression of Offspring

The most interesting field in neuroscience right now, to me, is epigenetics - in fact, it might be one of the most important new inquiries we have made in decades into understanding how our biopsychosocial surround impacts our physical health, our mental health, and even our sense of who are as human beings.

From Seminars in Reproductive Medicine: (via NIH)
Epigenetics has been defined and today is generally accepted as ‘‘the study of changes in gene function that are mitotically and/or meiotically heritable and that do not entail a change in DNA sequence.’’[3] The epigenetic modifications described in current literature generally comprise histone variants, posttranslational modifications of amino acids on the amino-terminal tail of histones, and covalent modifications of DNA bases. The validity of the current definition of epigenetics should be seriously questioned because the previously mentioned epigenetic modifications also have a crucial role in the silencing and expression of noncoding sequences.

We know, for example that the nutritional status of a man as he enters puberty will impact the health status of his son (lack of food led to lower-than-normal rates of heart disease, while too much food led to greater risk of diabetes). In animal models (murine), research confirms that "a male mammal’s nutritional past has a surprisingly strong effect on his offspring." Pre-reproduction starvation of male rats produce offspring with lower blood sugar and "altered levels of corticosterone (which protects against stress) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (which helps babies develop)."

In this new study, researchers have re-confirmed prior studies around the impact of pre-conception stress on "behavioral outcomes of offspring, even in adult life, independently of any interactions between the mother and her developing infant."

Maternal Stress Prior to Conception May Influence Genetic Expression of Offspring

November 18, 2013
Stephen I. Deutsch, MD, PhD - Ann Robinson Endowed Chair in Psychiatry, Professor and Chairman, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Eastern Virginia Medical School; Attending Psychiatrist, Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, Norfolk, Va.

First published in Psychiatry Weekly, Volume 8, Issue 23, November 18, 2013

A recent study showed that maternal pre-reproductive stress in rats occurring before conception and pregnancy had transgenerational effects on both newborn and adult offspring.1 Exposing female adult rats (postnatal day 45-54) to chronic unpredictable stress 14 days before they were mated resulted in increased expression of mRNA for the corticotropin releasing factor type 1 receptor (CRF1) in frontal cortex and mature oocyte of the stressed adult female rats, as well as in the brain of newborn offspring on postnatal day 0.

The data suggest that the transgenerational transmission of effects of pre-reproductive maternal stress occurred via changes in epigenetic regulation of CRF1 expression in ova; there was an 18.5-fold enrichment of CRF1 mRNA expression in mature oocytes of stressed adult female rats, relative to oocytes of controls.1 Changes in epigenetic regulation of gene expression occur commonly as a result of changes in the methylation status of cytosine residues in CpG islands associated with promoter regions of genes. Changes in CRF1 expression may reflect alterations of function in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which responds to stress; also, CRF1 expression is enriched in areas of brain implicated in the stress response (eg, cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala), as well as in regions of the periphery (eg, GI tract, spleen and ova).

The effects of pre-reproductive maternal stress on behavior of adult offspring were influenced by both gender and the history of stress exposure of the adult offspring, and particularly by the intensity of stressful exposures in adulthood. Also, expression of CRF1 mRNA in brains of adult offspring was influenced by both maternal stress history and the stress history of the adult offspring. Exposure of the adult offspring to high stress, as opposed to low stress, led to the appreciation of differences in regional expression of CRF1 mRNA between adult offspring of maternal pre-reproductive stressed and nonstressed dams. Differences also emerged between male and female adult offspring of stressed dams and their appropriate same-sex controls. Therefore, in the high-stress condition, adult female offspring of maternal pre-reproductive stressed rats showed increased expression of CRF1 mRNA in frontal cortex, compared to adult female control offspring, whereas both male and female adult offspring of maternal pre-reproductive stressed rats showed decreased expression in the amygdala, relative to their same-sex controls.

The implications of this research suggest that the early maternal history before conception and delivery could affect behavioral outcomes of offspring, even in adult life, independently of any interactions between the mother and her developing infant.[1] The transgenerational transmission may occur through the germ line. However, transgenerational effects on outcomes may be influenced by the offspring’s gender and unique developmental history, including history of stressful exposures, and may not be dramatic. Epigenetic transmission may also include transmission of resiliency factors, and plasticity is a feature of the adult brain, so there may be reason to remain optimistic about therapeutic potential.

Disclosure: Dr. Deutsch has received grant support from the Commonwealth Health Research Board (State of Virginia).

Zaidan H, Leshem M, Gaisler-Salomon I. (2013, May 31). Prereproductive stress to female rats alters corticotropin releasing factor type 1 expression in ova and behavior and brain corticotropin releasing factor type 1 expression in offspring. Biological Psychiatry;74: 680-687.
* * * * *

Here is the abstract for the original article:

Prereproductive Stress to Female Rats Alters Corticotropin Releasing Factor Type 1 Expression in Ova and Behavior and Brain Corticotropin Releasing Factor Type 1 Expression in Offspring

Hiba Zaidan, Micah Leshem, Inna Gaisler-Salomon


Human and animal studies indicate that vulnerability to stress may be heritable and that changes in germline may mediate some transgenerational effects. Corticotropin releasing factor type 1 (CRF1) is a key component in the stress response. We investigated changes in CRF1 expression in brain and ova of stressed female rats and in the brain of their neonate and adult offspring. Behavioral changes in adulthood were also assessed.


Adult female rats underwent chronic unpredictable stress. We extracted mature oocytes and brain regions from a subset of rats and mated the rest 2 weeks following the stress procedure. CRF1 expression was assessed using quantitative reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction. Tests of anxiety and aversive learning were used to examine behavior of offspring in adulthood.


We show that chronic unpredictable stress leads to an increase in CRF1 messenger RNA expression in frontal cortex and mature oocytes. Neonatal offspring of stressed female rats show an increase in brain CRF1 expression. In adulthood, offspring of stressed female rats show sex differences in both CRF1 messenger RNA expression and behavior. Moreover, CRF1 expression patterns in frontal cortex of female offspring depend upon both maternal and individual adverse experience.

Our findings demonstrate that stress affects CRF1 expression in brain but also in ova, pointing to a possible mechanism of transgenerational transmission. In offspring, stress-induced changes are evident at birth and are thus unlikely to result from altered maternal nurturance. Finally, brain CRF1 expression in offspring depends upon gender and upon maternal and individual exposure to adverse environment.

Paul J. Zak and Jorge A. Barraza - The Neurobiology of Collective Action


The paper here, courtesy of Frontiers in Neuroscience: Decision Neuroscience (an open access publication), looks at the neurobiological mechanisms involved in collective action. Specifically, they look at the role of empathic concern and oxytocin in activating collective action.

From Wikipedia, here is a brief definition of collective action:
Collective action is traditionally defined as any action aiming to improve the group’s conditions (such as status or power), which is enacted by a representative of the group.[1] It is a term that has formulations and theories in many areas of the social sciences including psychology, sociology, political science and economics.
This is an interesting paper, despite the use of a mathematical model to explain human behavior.

The neurobiology of collective action

Paul J. Zak [1,2] and Jorge A. Barraza [1]
1. Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, USA
2. Department of Neurology, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, CA, USA
This essay introduces a neurologically-informed mathematical model of collective action (CA) that reveals the role for empathy and distress in motivating costly helping behaviors. We report three direct tests of model with a key focus on the neuropeptide oxytocin as well as a variety of indirect tests. These studies, from our lab and other researchers, show support for the model. Our findings indicate that empathic concern, via the brain's release of oxytocin, is a trigger for CA. We discuss the implications from this model for our understanding why human beings engage in costly CA.

Full Citation: 
Zak PJ, and Barraza JA, (2013, Nov 19). The neurobiology of collective action. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7:211. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00211


How do people come together to achieve a common goal? This essay will argue that the physiologic drivers of collective action (CA) are the same mechanisms that are involved in the experience of empathy. Specifically, we present a formal model and describe neuroeconomics studies from our lab that have revealed empathy, and empathic concern in particular, as a crucial component of CA. Herein we review studies from our lab that demonstrate the neuroactive hormone oxytocin instantiates empathy and promotes prosocial behaviors, including CA (for other similar reviews of the human oxytocin literature see Bartz et al., 2011; De Dreu, 2012; Feldman, 2012; Guastella and MacLeod, 2012; Kumsta and Heinrichs, 2012; Van IJzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2012; Carter, 2013; for similar reviews focusing on neural activity see Shamay-Tsoory, 2011; Decety et al., 2012). We begin with the understanding that most CA is not done for purely altruistic or other-regarding motives. For instance, people may volunteer for a cause out of concern for others, but may also volunteer out of a felt or social obligation, to build their reputation, or to feel better about themselves (e.g., Omoto and Snyder, 1995). This review focuses on the role of one particular motive for CA: empathy. A biologically based human capacity, empathy has been found to motivate prosocial behaviors (e.g., Eisenberg and Fabes, 1990; Batson and Oleson, 1991; Penner et al., 2005). Empathy can promote CA by reducing self-regarding concerns and enhancing other regarding motives (e.g., Batson, 1991). We propose that empathy is a motive for CA, an adaptive human behavior with neurobiological underpinnings (for similar arguments see Brown and Brown, 2006; de Waal, 2008; Gonzalez-Liencres et al., 2013).

This idea was captured in Adam Smith's (1759) masterwork The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he wrote, “Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem… please the indifferent spectator upon almost every occasion. His sympathy with the person who feels those passions, exactly coincides with his concern for the person who is the object of them” (Vol. 1, ch. iv, para. 313). In discussing sympathy, or “fellow-feeling” as Smith defined it, we will use the word empathy (a term derived from an 1858 coinage einfühlung or “feeling into” by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817−1881) that more closely captures the notion of an innate human capacity for one individual to respond to the experiences of another (Davis, 1996).

The literatures describing empathy are large and diverse (Batson, 2010), but our focus is on a narrower notion, empathic concern. Empathic concern is an emotion that is felt for another person (also see Barraza and Zak, 2013) and has been called the “root of all altruism” (McDougall, 1926). Empathic concern has been used interchangeably with notions of compassion (Batson, 2010), though we prefer the former term as being less generally used and thus less prone to misuse. Those who become aware of distress in others and are able to regulate the arousal that arises from it are more likely to experience empathic concern (Eisenberg and Fabes, 1990).

We begin by presenting a rationale for CA. Next, we introduce a neurobiologically-based model of prosocial behaviors in order to identify empathic concern as a proximal mechanism for CA. We then introduce evidence from recent studies from our lab suggesting a role for the neuropeptide oxytocin in producing empathic concern and inducing CA. Figure 1 summarizes the proposed relationships.


Figure 1. A physiologic model of collective action. Oxytocin induces empathic concern that increases the likelihood of collective action.

A Mathematical Model of Collective Action

CA refers to a set of behaviors that are performed with others to meet a goal or strive to make progress on a desired outcome. CA includes both cooperative behaviors (where two or more people work toward a mutually beneficial outcome) and collective helping behaviors (where two or more people work for the benefit of others not involved in the action). CA can be a single event (e.g., assisting someone who is drowning, pitching in money or time for a group picnic) or can extend over a long period of time (e.g., volunteering weekends at a retirement home, or the provision of public goods). Thus, CA includes a wide array of actions that are done for the benefit of others at some cost to the individual, whether or not these benefits extend to the self.

Why do people intentionally engage in behavior where the self bears a direct or opportunity cost? Game theoretic models derived from the prisoner's dilemma show that conditional cooperation is typically a better long-term strategy than consistent defection (Axelrod, 1984). These models, however, generally focus on why people would engage in behaviors that, although benefiting others, eventually benefit the actor. Tellingly, some forms of CA may provide little or no direct, immediate, or guaranteed benefit to the actor (Melis and Semmann, 2010).

Empathic concern for another's welfare may be a proximate mechanism motivating individuals to engage in costly CA. Empathic concern is a candidate mechanism for CA because it allows individuals to focus on the state of others, even in situations where there may be no direct benefit for the actor (de Waal, 2008). For example, empathic concern after a signal of distress or request for help, resolves the problem of reciprocal motives for CA where the actor benefits at a later time by placing weight on the well-being of others.

Behavioral scientists have found that empathic concern tips the scale in favor for prosocial engagement (e.g., Batson, 1991; Davis, 1996; Sober and Wilson, 1998; Preston and de Waal, 2002). The arousal: Cost-reward model of helping behavior (Dovidio, 1984; Dovidio et al., 1991) states that in order for people to be motivated to help others, they have to first become aware of the need of others for help. Aversive arousal elicited through emotional contagion makes the need for intervention salient. Aversive arousal then motivates a cognitive weighing of the costs and benefits for acting prosocially. Empathic concern is assumed to increase the costs for not engaging, for example, producing guilt, shame, and further distress if the observer does not help or cooperate. An explicit model of prosocial emotions such as guilt and shame prompting costly prosocial behavior was proposed by Bowles and Gintis (2003). Empathic concern may reward those who help others, for example, producing a so-called warm glow utility flow (positive affect for engaging in helping others; Andreoni, 1990) or other internal reward (Harbaugh et al., 2007) as we will propose in the model below.

The empathy-altruism hypothesis (e.g., Batson, 1991; Batson and Oleson, 1991), suggests that an empathic response is a necessary component in human prosocial behaviors. The arousal experienced from witnessing another's aversive state leads to divergent affective reactions, especially distress and empathic concern. Whereas distress (self-focused aversive feelings) motivates a desire to reduce aversive arousal, empathic concern causes one to attend to the other's aversive state. Those who are distressed may seek to escape the arousing situation (either psychologically or physically) when it is less costly than staying involved (Batson, 1987). On the other hand, empathizing with those requiring help makes it difficult to disengage without seeking to relieve the other's distress.

A large number of psychological studies have supported the link between empathic concern and prosocial engagement. Instead of reviewing this extensive literature (e.g., see Davis, 1996; de Waal, 2008; Batson, 2010), we use volunteerism to illustrate the role of empathic concern in CA. Volunteerism is a form of CA that occurs in the context of groups and organizations, where people give of their time for the benefit of a person, group, or cause (e.g., Penner et al., 2005). Volunteerism is interesting because it is long-term planned behavior (Penner, 2002). As such, volunteering is less influenced by situational factors than other prosocial actions. Further, volunteering is typically focused on aiding strangers to whom there is no social obligation (Omoto and Snyder, 1995). In general, volunteers have been found to be more dispositionally empathic than non-volunteers (e.g., Rushton, 1984; Bekkers, 2005). Those who score high in dispositional empathy anticipate feelings of empathy and satisfaction during volunteering and are more willing to volunteer because of those feelings (Davis et al., 1999). Individuals who report empathy-driven prosocial motives for volunteering, for example expressing values and concern for their community, are found to persist longer as volunteers than those who endorse self-oriented motives like enhancing their employability or to feel better about themselves (e.g., Clary and Orenstein, 1991; Penner and Finkelstein, 1998). These findings indicate that empathic concern is a key factor in motivating and sustaining one form of CA—volunteerism. In the model of CA that follows, we seek to clarify the mechanisms through which empathic concern and distress affect other-regarding behaviors.

The model we propose is a neurologically-informed extension of the model in Zak et al. (2007) that is based on a decade's worth of experiments using an inductive approach (Park and Zak, 2004; Vercoe and Zak, 2010) in which experimental treatments are systematically varied before a model is proposed. The goal in presenting this model is not to replace traditional game theoretic models of CA, but to extend these models to include the role of empathic concern during social interactions.

The model takes as its foundation a model introduced in a footnote by the prominent Irish social philosopher Edgeworth (1881/2012) in his book Mathematical Psychics: An Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences where utility is obtained from one's own consumption and a weighted utility of another's consumption (Edgeworth, 1881/1967). Andreoni (1990); Sally (2001, 2002), and Levitt and List (2007) have proposed similar models without drawing on neural findings, while Morishima et al. (2012), develop a neurally-informed mathematical model based on theory of mind. Similar to Morishima et al. we propose a model steeped in experimental findings that can shed new insights into CA. The model differs from Edgeworth and the existing literature by including responses that are conditional on one's own, and the other's, physiologic states.

The decision-maker, who we will identify as person 1, faces the following decision problem:

where U(b1) is the utility person 1 receives from consuming benefits b1, b2 is the benefit that person 2 receives from person 1, U(b2) is the utility person 2 obtains from b2, and total resources, M, are finite. Assume U(b) is increasing, continuous and strictly concave. Person 1 chooses b1 and b2 through this constrained optimization problem. We will call this the Empathy-Collective Action model.

Edgeworth called the weight α on the other's utility “effective sympathy” (1881/1967, p. 53) and considered it a constant; using Lotze's definition of emotional contagion, we will call α “empathic concern.” Our Empathy-Collective Action model generalizes Edgeworth by identifying CA as an individually costly behavior and by taking into account the motivation for prosocial action by letting empathic concern depend on the situation the decision-maker faces. Specifically, let α(τ): [0,1]→ ℜ+ be a continuous hyperbolic function where empathic concern, α, depends on the observed distress of person 2, τ. The parameter τ captures the distress that motivates the decision-maker to pay attention to the needs of the other person. As previously discussed, “distress” should be understood as any situation in which the behavior or emotional state of another (or group of others) suggests that they may need assistance. The function α has the following properties, α(0)≥0, limτ→∞ α(τ) = 0, and τ* = argmax α(τ), with α(τ*) > α(0), and τ* finite. That is, α(τ) has the shape of a parabola.

The empathic concern function α(τ) is hyperbolic because moderate distress motivates action, but high degrees of distress are aversive causing one to want to escape rather than help (e.g., Batson et al., 1987). For example, if one sees someone sprain an ankle and fall to the ground, most people are motivated to help. Seeing someone with a bloody compound fracture of the ankle may be so distressing that many bystanders will flee and avoid helping. Alternatively, distress may arise from social pressures of inaction.

In the Empathy-Collective Action model, when α(τ) = 0, person 1 is completely self-interested, and when α(τ) = 1 s/he is other-regarding, sharing benefits equally with person 2. Values of α(τ) > 1 cause person 1, at an optimum, to offer more resources to person 2 than she keeps herself. It is straightforward to prove that as α rises, the benefits to person 2, b2, increase. Different values of α would account individual variations in empathic concern and resulting differences in individually-costly CA. Indeed, CA, where an individual bears a direct or opportunity cost during CA, requires a positive value of α(τ). The model's value is that is shows how individual variations in empathic concern (α) and the social environment (τ) can be included in a game-theoretic model of CA. If one exhibits low CA in a given situation, the model predicts that either empathic concern or one's perception of the needs of others (or both) is low. For example, an adult waiting to cross a busy street may not elicit costly CA by those nearby, but a small child alone seeking to cross such a street is likely to produce greater CA, especially among parents who may be more sensitized to children.

Our next task is to present neurobiological evidence showing that empathy affects CA.

Neurobiological Mechanisms

Knowing the neurobiology of empathic concern not only provides additional information on mechanism, but may also produce additional testable implications and applications (see Neurobiological Mechanisms). A large body of work now exists on the neural basis for empathy using functional MRI which have been reviewed in detail elsewhere (see Lamm et al., 2011; Shamay-Tsoory, 2011; Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). These studies generally locate empathy within the brain's pain matrix, specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula (Singer et al., 2004, 2006; Hein and Singer, 2008). However, these studies focus on the distress aspect of social engagement by studying responses to pain rather than the possible rewards of empathic concern.

The Empathy-Collective Action model of prosocial behavior that posits a utility flow or “warm glow” is consistent with findings from two studies using fMRI by examining donations to charities. Moll et al. (2006) found that brain regions differentially more active during donations to preferred charities compared to unpreferred charities included striatal regions associated with rewarding stimuli. These researchers also found that contrasting brain activity during charitable donations and individual reward revealed activation in the subgenual cortex, a brain region that modulates rewards associated with affiliative behaviors. In a related study of charitable donations, Harbaugh et al. (2007) found that donating to a charity, relative to keeping money for oneself, also produced activation in striatal regions of the brain. They further showed that voluntary donations to charity were associated with a greater subjective experience of satisfaction and larger striatal activation than mandatory donations.

The Role of Oxytocin

The best evidence for the role of empathic concern affecting CA would be to discover a manipulable neural mechanism that would raise or lower α in the Empathy-Collective Action model. The word “manipulable” is important here to demonstrate that such a mechanism directly causes CA. If we push on this mechanism (somehow), we would expect to see less self-focused benefits b1, and more other-focused benefits b2.

Oxytocin (OT) is an evolutionarily ancient molecule that is a key part of the mammalian attachment system supporting costly care for offspring. In socially monogamous mammals, OT and a closely related hormone, arginine vasopressin, facilitate attachment to and protection of mates (see Carter, 1998). Maternal (and in some species paternal) care for offspring is a template for more general other-regarding behaviors (Sober and Wilson, 1998; de Waal, 2008). In the human brain, high densities of OT receptors are primarily found in the amygdala, hypothalamus, and subgenual cortex (Tribollet et al., 1992; Barberis and Tribollet, 1996), brain regions associated with emotions and social behaviors.

OT can be measured in blood and cerebral spinal fluid, and synthetic OT can be infused into human beings intravenously or intranasally to gauge its effects on behaviors (Churchland and Winkielman, 2012). A key issue for studying OT in humans is that under physiologic stress, central (brain) and peripheral (body) OT co-release (Wotjak et al., 1998; Neumann, 2008). This means that a change in blood levels in OT after a stimulus is likely to be positively correlated with changes in OT in the brain. In addition, peripheral OT binds to receptors in the heart and vagus nerve, reducing anxiety and cardiovascular tone (see Porges, 2001, 2007) and thereby signaling approachability. OT binding in animals is associated with the modulation of midbrain dopamine and serotonin (Pfister and Muir, 1989; Liu and Wang, 2003).

Studies using OT infusion in humans have shown that it enhances the ability to infer others' emotions and intentions from facial expressions (Domes et al., 2007). OT also increases the time spent gazing toward the eye region of the face (Guastella et al., 2008), and the recognition of faces (Savaskan et al., 2008). Mice with the gene for the OT receptor knocked out have social amnesia—they do not appear to remember animals they have previously encountered (Ferguson et al., 2000).

Situations that motivate CA often involve a request for help. Such requests may provoke both empathic distress and concern as in the Empathy-Collective Action model. OT infusion has been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala in response to socially fearful stimuli (Kirsch et al., 2005) and fear conditioned stimuli (Petrovic et al., 2008). By reducing anxiety, OT may help people sustain CA over extended periods of time. Social psychologist Shelley Taylor calls this the “tend and befriend” role of OT (Taylor et al., 2000; Taylor, 2006), where OT reduces anxiety and promotes affiliative behaviors in response to stress.

Trust, Reciprocity, and Cooperation

Our lab was the first to demonstrate that OT promotes prosocial behaviors among human beings (Zak et al., 2004, 2005). We began this research in 2001 by examining the role of OT in facilitating trust between strangers. In these studies, we used a task from experimental economics called the trust game (Berg et al., 1995). In our trust experiments, participants were endowed with $10 to compensate them for their time and discomfort (see below). They were then given the opportunity to increase their earnings by making a single decision by computer and without coordinating with others using their $10. For this task, they were matched randomly in dyads with random assignment to the roles of decision-maker 1 (DM1) or decision-maker 2 (DM2). All DMs received extensive and identical instructions informing them that DM1 could transfer some of his or her endowment to the DM2 in dyad, and this amount would be removed from DM1's account and tripled in DM2's account. DM2 was then notified by computer of the tripled transfer from DM1 and was reminded of the total in his or her account. After this, the software prompted DM2 to return to DM1 any amount from zero to the account total. The return transfer was not tripled and was removed from DM2's account on a one-to-one basis. After these two decisions, the interaction was concluded. The consensus view in economics is that the DM1 transfer denotes trust, and the DM2 transfer captures reciprocity or trustworthiness.

So why would DM2 return any money, something participants do 98% of the time (Zak et al., 2007)? We found that the more money DM2s received, the greater the increase in OT. Importantly, the higher the spike of OT for DM2, the more she or he reciprocated by returning money to the DM1 who showed trust (Zak et al., 2004, 2005; Zak, 2012). Nine other hormones (e.g., vasopressin, estradiol) were ruled out for mediation or interactive effects, supporting the direct link between endogenous OT release and trustworthiness.

We next demonstrated the causal effect of OT on trust by administering 24IU of synthetic OT intranasally, a method utilized to enhance OT levels in the brain. After allowing for an hour for the OT to enter the brain, participants played the trust game. Not only did the average level of trust rise for those given OT, more than twice as many people on OT showed maximal trust by sending all of their money to a stranger (45 vs. 22% for those on placebo; Kosfeld et al., 2005). There was no effect of OT on an objective risk-taking task, providing evidence for its uniquely social effects. Moreover, the results were not due to changes in mood or cognitive blunting. These studies provide evidence that OT helps us determine who to trust and when to reciprocate, two key ingredients for CA.

Certainly trust can promote CA, but our trust research left open two important questions: are there non-pharmacologic ways to raise OT? and, is OT directly associated with empathic concern? In our trust experiments, the receipt of money denoting trust resulted in a substantial spike in endogenous OT relative to baseline. Prior to our work, the only known ways to raise OT in humans were to go into labor, to breastfeed a child, or to engage in sexual activity. These methods of raising OT are impractical for laboratory experiments, so we began to search for other ways endogenous OT might be manipulated. Research in rodents provided equivocal data that belly stroking might induce OT release. To test this in humans, we used licensed massage therapists to give participants a 15-min moderate pressure back massage. A control group simply rested quietly for 15 min on different days. Participants had their blood drawn and played the trust game one time. We found that massage raised OT (Morhenn et al., 2008, 2012), and for DM2s in the trust game, massage primed the brain to release 16% more OT than DM2 controls. Amazingly, reciprocation was 243% higher by DM2s in the massage group relative to DM2 controls (Morhenn et al., 2008). The change in OT strongly predicted the amount of money DM2s would sacrifice to reciprocate to DM1s.

We next undertook direct tests of the zero-sum Empathy-Collective Action model using a task called the Ultimatum Game (UG Güth et al., 1982). In this game, participants were again put into dyads and randomly assigned to the roles of DM1 and DM2. DM1 began the experiment with $10 while DM2 began with nothing. After extensive and identical instructions, DM1 was prompted by computer to propose a split of the $10 to DM2. If DM2 accepted the proposal, the money was paid. The catch was that if DM2 rejected the proposal, both DMs received nothing. In Western countries, offers less than $3 are nearly always rejected. We hypothesized that raising OT would increase empathy, α, and generate more generosity (generosity was defined as the amount a DM1 proposal exceeded the minimum acceptable offer by DM2s). Note that using the zero-sum UG, rather than a positive-sum trust game, sets the bar for the effects of OT substantially higher than in positive-sum games. In the trust game, we showed that OT was associated with reciprocity but that on average both DM1s and DM2s increased their earnings. In the UG OT was hypothesized to affect costly generosity in which more for DM2 meant less for DM1. This is just what we found. Infusing 40IU intranasally into participants caused an 80% increase in generosity relative to subjects who received a placebo (Zak et al., 2007). Generous participants left the lab with less money, but were not less happy on debriefing than those who were not generous. This provided the first evidence α could be manipulated by manipulating central OT.

The second test of the Empathy-Collective Action model used testosterone infusion to create “alpha males” in a double-blind cross-over paradigm (Zak et al., 2009). There is some evidence that testosterone inhibits OT binding to its receptor (Insel et al., 1993) and thus testosterone was expected to reduce generosity. This was indeed what we found. We raised total testosterone an average of 60% above baseline (free testosterone, and dihydrotestosterone, which are more active biologically than total testosterone, were raised 97 and 128% respectively; all changes were greater than zero at p < 1E-6). Men whose testosterone was artificially raised, compared to themselves on placebo, were 27% less generous in the UG. Moreover, the reduction in generosity fell rapidly as a man's level of total-, free- and dihydro-testosterone (DHT) rose, revealing a parametric effect of testosterone on generosity. For example, participants in the lowest decile of DHT had 85% higher average generosity ($3.65 out of $10) compared to generosity by those in the highest decile of DHT ($0.55 out of $10). Interestingly, the enhanced “alpha males” also had a 5% higher threshold (p = 0.001) to punish those who were ungenerous toward them. This experiment revealed that α could be reduced in the Empathy-Collective Action model.

In a third experiment, we examined whether endogenous OT was associated with the subjective experience of empathic concern by having participants watch a 100 s highly emotional video of a father and his son who has terminal brain cancer (Barraza and Zak, 2009). A control video had the same father and son going to the zoo but did not mention cancer or death. We found that watching the emotional video caused a 47% increase in OT relative to baseline. Importantly, the change in OT was correlated with subjective reports of empathic concern once we controlled for the distress that participants felt. We also found that those who were more empathically engaged made more generous offers in the UG, and generosity in the UG was associated with larger donations of participants' earnings to charity at the conclusion of the experiment. Participants who scored high in a measure of dispositional empathy (using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, Davis, 1983), experienced greater empathic concern after the emotional video and had a larger increase in OT after viewing the emotional video. The participants who were most empathic and released the most OT were women; women were also more generous and gave more money to charity than did men. This study is the first to provide direct evidence that OT is associated with empathic concern, confirming the intuition of Adam Smith and the design of the Empathy-Collective Action model.

Defectors and Free-Riders

Defection is the death-knell of CA. When people begin to free-ride, for example in public goods games, others typically follow suit (Camerer, 2003). In our studies using the trust game using college students, we find that 95% of DM2s who have been trusted reciprocate. The degree of reciprocation for this 95% are predicted by their OT levels. The other 5% are unconditional non-reciprocators, they return nothing or very little money no matter how much they are trusted. We found that OT levels of non-reciprocators are abnormally high, indicating OT dysregulation. Psychologically, these people have traits similar to psychopaths (Zak, 2005, 2012).

We have recently extended this finding by studying patients with social anxiety disorder (Hoge et al., 2008). They, too, have high levels of OT. Because the brain works through contrast, high OT masks any additional OT release when receiving a signal of trust, thus inhibiting a behavioral response. Similarly, a study of those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is associated with a compromised ability to interpret social signals, showed an inability to maintain reciprocity in the trust game (King-Casas et al., 2008). This inability to cooperate seemed to be mediated by abnormal activity in the anterior insula, a brain region previously associated with empathy for pain (Singer et al., 2004, 2006); whereas psychologically healthy individuals showed a strong parametric relationship between amount received in the trust game and anterior insula activation, no such relationship was found for BPD subjects suggesting a possible empathy deficit in BPD.

Our discovery of the “five percent rule” for free-riders (Shermer, 2008; Zak, 2012) in a fixed institutional setting is important in understanding CA. It suggests that not all people can be expected to participate in a collective project, even when the issue is salient and people are highly motivated. When the social, economic or institutional environments are less than optimal, greater defection from CA will be expected as high levels of stress inhibit OT release (Carter, 1998). This is reflected in a low value of α in the Empathy-Generosity model, making the environment in which CA problems are solved important (Dietz et al., 2003). On the upside, our studies indicate that the majority of the population–including a study of aboriginal people in Papua New Guinea (Zak, 2012) release OT for a large variety of stimuli.

Collective Action Through Charitable Institutions

We have now conducted several studies examining giving through charitable institutions. Charitable donations are unique from other forms of CA as it is typically done without any direct exposure to the beneficiary or direct knowledge of how the individual contributions will be used. Though performed by individuals, charitable giving functions through the collective contributions made to an institution to address an issue of interest to its contributors. Barraza et al. (2011) examined whether 40IU of OT would increase donations in a lab donation task. Participant in the OT condition gave 48% more money than those in the placebo condition. This result was later replicated by others using a smaller dose (24IU) and a different charity (Van IJzendoorn et al., 2011). In another study, participants viewed public service announcements (PSAs) relating to social and health related issues after 40IU of OT infusion (Lin et al., 2013). Participants were given an opportunity to donate some of their earnings to the charities promoted in the ads. We found those who received OT donated to 33% of the causes while participants receiving the placebo donated to 21% of the featured charities. OT also increased the size of donation by 56% compared to placebo.

Another set of evidence comes from a growing body of research examining the association between single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene, and social behaviors. Work from others indicated an association between OXTR SNPs and empathy (Rodrigues et al., 2009; Wu et al., 2012a) as well as prosocial behaviors (Poulin et al., 2012; Wu et al., 2012b). In a recent study (Barraza et al., in preparation) we explored if OXTR SNPs affected CA done through charitable institutions. Three of the OXTR SNPs examined (rs237887, rs2268490, rs2254298) were linked with making a charitable contribution in a laboratory task. Participants were also asked to report their donations to charitable institutions outside the lab. Here, an association between OXTR and monetary donations was found for rs237887 (AA donating more than AG/GG), and rs53576 (AA/AG donating more than GG). Individuals with AA/AG genotype of rs53576 were found to be more likely to donate to religious charities (versus GG). Unexpectedly, we discovered that these same participants (rs53576: AA/AG) were more religious than their counterparts (rs53576: GG). Mediation analysis and indicated that the association between rs53576 and donations was a result of the relationship between rs53576 and religiosity. A possible interpretation is that OT may function by promoting CA through membership in an existing group.

Ritual and Intergroup Behavior

CA involves both coordination with and a preference to affiliate with group members. It has been hypothesized that OT motivates cooperation especially for one's in-group by promoting (i) in-group favoritism, (ii) in-group cooperation, and (iii) defense-motivated non-cooperation toward threatening outsiders (De Dreu, 2012). OT administration increases bias for ones in-group when groups are formed for the experiment itself (De Dreu et al., 2010, 2011; Stallen et al., 2012). Although these studies provide evidence for in-group preference, they do not provide support for OT promoting antisociality toward an out-group (see Van IJzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2012) and may be alternatively explained by OT's social saliency properties (Chen et al., 2011). Moreover, OT's in-group-specific effects may only arise out of zero-sum tasks between groups, where cooperation can only be performed at a cost to an out-group. Support for this interpretation was found by Israel et al. (2012) using a task that allowed for intergroup cooperation. These scholars reported that OT promoted both in-group and out-group cooperation, although those who received OT allocated more resources benefiting their in-group compared to placebo recipients. We have produced results that fall somewhere in between the DeDreu et al. and Israel et al. studies. In our study of charitable donations mentioned above, we found OT increased the size of charitable donations with a trend toward a preference for an in-group vs. an out-group charity (American Red Cross or the Palestinian Red Crescent Society; Barraza et al., 2011). It appears that OT may promote in-group CA, but may also support CA across groups when there is a collective benefit available for everyone.

Our lab has recently examined a different question: why do naturally existing groups engage coordinated and costly ritualistic behaviors? Human life is replete with rituals and we hypothesized that rituals may induce the release of OT to reinforce group attachment. In this project (Terris et al., in preparation) we examined OT release before and after rituals for several secular and religious groups. Groups also made decisions in several economic tasks, [trust game (TG), ultimatum game (UG), and dictator game (DG)] by computer, with in-group and out-group members. We found that OT significantly increased for some groups after performing ritual (marching in unison, singing religious songs), but not for others (Christian prayer). We also observed a positive correlation between positive regard toward the in-group after the ritual and how much one gave to one's in-group relative to the out-group in the TG and DG, but not the UG. No association was observed between OT change induced by ritual and prosocial behavior toward in- or out-groups. These results indicate that although some rituals increase plasma OT, the increase does not appear to influence in-group preferences. This work suggests that OT can unite people to act as a group, but does not necessarily injure out-group collaboration when there are shared interests at stake.

Trust in Political Institutions

Political actions, such as voting and campaigning, are another form of CA. Our lab has explored how OT administration affected trust in government officials and institutions during the 2007 Democratic and Republican primaries (Merolla et al., 2013). We found that participants given 40IU intranasal OT reported more agreement with the statement that most people can be trusted than those on placebo, especially when examining those low on pre-treatment interpersonal trust. Although OT did not directly impact trust in the government, we found Democrats on OT were more trusting of both Democrat and Republican politicians, and the federal government in general, when compared to those on placebo. When trust in government is higher, civic CA is likely to follow.

Generalized trust at the national level affects trust between individuals in the trust game (Holm and Danielson, 2005). Generalized trust levels strongly predict rates of economic growth in a cross-section of developed and less developed countries in part by facilitating CA (Zak and Knack, 2001). Generalized trust levels are also highly correlated with other forms of social capital such as paying taxes and other civic norms (Knack and Keefer, 1997), and trust and self-reported rates of happiness are very highly correlated at the country level (Zak and Fakhar, 2006) as are happiness levels and some forms of CA (e.g., volunteering; Post, 2005).


Most traditional evolutionary and economic models do not attempt to provide proximate mechanisms to explain the wide array of behaviors that are called CA. These models have caused some behavioral scientists to erroneously conclude that costly prosocial behaviors are “irrational” or manipulative, presuming that individuals engaging in CA are hiding behind a “veneer” covering their true selfish instincts (e.g., de Waal, 2006). We presented a neurobiologically-informed model of individually-costly behaviors that benefit others. This model, with the hormone oxytocin at its core, accounts for physiologic factors that are not provided in extant models, particularly for the role of empathic concern. It is also consistent with experiments we have run that reveal substantial amounts of costly other-regarding behaviors, even in blinded one-shot depersonalized settings.

Those unfamiliar with the existing body of research on oxytocin may be left with the impression of OT as a purely prosocial hormone. This is not the case. OT has been implicated with behaviors that could be considered antisocial including ethnocentrism (De Dreu et al., 2011), envy (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009), and less adherence to fairness norms in certain contexts (Radke and De Bruijn, 2012). Moreover, there are methodological concerns about oxytocin administration (Churchland and Winkielman, 2012; Guastella et al., 2012), and peripheral oxytocin measurement (McCullough et al., 2013). The state of oxytocin research is still in it's infancy. The Empathy-Collective Action model seeks to take these disparate findings and provide a game theoretic structure to understand how OT affects human social behaviors.

The strength of our approach lies in integrating methodologies and evidence across disciplines (Zak, 2004). More generally, our research on the neuroeconomics of social behaviors has revealed that empathic concern serves as an internal compass that can result in CA (Zak, 2011). Adam Smith was right on target, fellow-feeling does appear to be the basis for many moral behaviors and CA. Research from our lab has simply identified a neurochemical mechanism behind Smith's intuition.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We would like to thank the late Elinor Ostrom for valuable comments on an earlier draft. We also like to thank all of our colleagues and research assistants who have collaborated with us on many of the studies highlighted here.

References available at the Frontiers site