Rachel Scheub

Selflessness: A Mental Disorder?


Earlier this year, on October 10th, NPR aired a podcast titled “What Drives Some People to Take Personal Risks to Help Strangers.” Before we get into the science covered in this podcast, consider this: is there such thing as a truly selfless act?  This question is trickier than it appears.  Imagine you were in line at Dunkin Donut’s this morning and you decide to pay for the person behind you in line as well.  On the surface, this appears to be a kind, totally selfless act.  How would some you benefit from paying for some random stranger’s coffee?

Even if there are not monetary or physical benefits from this kind act, research has shown that reward centers in your brain are activated when you do an altruistic act.  Those “warm fuzzies” you feel when you do something good are actually a physiological response to your kind act.  So, if your body is responding positivity to your action, you are still getting something out of your action.  So, was your choice to buy the coffee truly selfless? Or was it still intrinsically selfish because your reward centers were activated?

While this may have already blown your mind, think about a psychopath, which is a mental disorder characterized mainly by a tendency to act only in self-interest and demonstrate apathy towards others.  We would consider someone without any desire to help anyone selfish (and consider this negatively).  Why do we look down upon self-interest so much? Evolutionarily, would it not make sense for us to be motivated to survive (and therefore prioritize our own needs)?

Now, synthesize these two pieces of information. Contemplate the fact that no action is completely selfless and that theoretically, we should be motivated to survive. So, based on this, would it not be abnormal to encounter a person over-motivated to help others? Are humans programmed to not act selflessly if it is costly to our own personal health? Why would someone act detrimentally to their own health to save someone else’s life (say, by donating a kidney)?

Back to paragraph one: “What Drives Some People to Take Personal Risks to Help Strangers?” Brain scans of those who conducted life-saving acts of altruism revealed an abnormally large amygdala in people who have acted in this overly selfless manner.  Scientists interpreted this in correlation to the altruistic acts to mean that those with large amygdalae are more heightened to the fear and distress of others.  This explains why someone might decide to save the life of a stranger even if it may hurt their well-being in the long term.

At the end of the day, selflessness is more complicated, and presents both neurological and philosophical questions for us.  Most of us fall somewhere on the continuum between the guardian angel with a large amygdala and psychopaths. So, next time someone buys you a coffee in the drive-through, think about what might have been going through their head.


Works Cited:




Food and Brain

Anna Hackett

Food Blog

We all know the feeling, absolutely craving that gooey chocolate cake, that cheesy pizza, or that crisp salad even. You also probably know the feeling of seeing an advertisement for a restaurant with sizzling steak, steaming fries, and creamy ice cream. It turns out, marketing agents have a better idea as to what they’re doing than we may assume. You may already be somewhat familiar with the process of rewards and punishments in the brain. A pathway known as the mesolimbic dopamine pathway is the principle area of the brain associated with this phenomenon. Our brains are trained to learn what stimuli in the environment or actions we do lead to rewards, or good feelings. Food is no exception to this mechanism and we can thank dopamine for how we feel. We know that eating brings us happiness; we as well as our brains consider it a reward when we eat, thus dopamine is released. So, seeing food advertisements where the food is displayed as if it were right in front of you causes our brains to signal to us that we want what we are seeing and we want to complete this new goal to release dopamine. We associate seeing the food with eating and thus being happy. Advertising agencies are no fool to this process and thus know, the more they show you and the more frequently you’re exposed to their commercials, the more you’ll want their food. This same spark of craving can come from scrolling through social media. So many people, if you’re like me, follow food Instagram accounts or blogs that are dedicated to showing the delicious, mouth watering, food finds the poster has managed to get their hands on somewhere in the world. It may seem harmless scrolling though these accounts, but you’re actually causing your body to get feelings of hunger without realizing it. You may have noticed that after a few scrolls through one of these pages you start feeling like you’re ready for a snack. Whether or not you indulge in these feelings is an entirely other thing, but only those with willpowers stronger than mine will be able to resist these new cravings. So, next time you’re scrolling though one of these accounts, because realistically this post won’t make you stop, nor should it, try and see if you’re starting to get those munchies feelings you brain is trying to induce.


Dooley, Roger. “Food Ads: How Brains Respond.” Neuromarketing, 29 Sept. 2014,

Banks, Amy. “The Dopamine Reward System: Friend or Foe?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 12 July 2015,

Bergland, Christopher. “The Neurochemicals of Happiness.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 29 Nov. 2012,

Romm, Cari. “What ‘Food Porn’ Does to the Brain.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 Apr. 2015,

What Makes You You?

Anna Hackett What Makes You You? The Nature Nurture Debate

The mind is a mysterious entity that so many have tried to decipher. Why are some people so outgoing while other people are so shy? Why are some siblings’ mannerisms the same, while others’ couldn’t be more different? There has been a lot of exploration as to what makes us the way we are and the main question is are we destined to have a certain personality or do our experiences mold us to be the people we are? In truth, there is still a lot of debate on the subject as proof has been found to sway scientists one way or the other, but there is one trend that seems to be widely agreed upon: our childhood is integral to our personality. Let’s start with an interesting relationship between childhood and genetics. You may have heard of the “serial killer gene” study. In this study, a man named Jim Fallon discovered through scanning unknown groups of families’ brains that his family seemed to all have brains matching that of a psychopath. A psychopath is someone who has a disconnection with feeling emotions or having a conscious. They often have an inactive orbital cortex, which works closely with the amygdala, a section of the brain involved in fear, aggression, and emotion. Fallon found that there are actually two genes that can be passed down that make someone more likely to show aggression and violence that are common in serial killers. One is a version of the MAO-A gene that produces less monoamine oxidase-A enzyme, which results in irregular metabolizing of dopamine. The other gene is CDH13, which is involved in connecting neurons. The main point, though, is that even though his whole family had these genes, most of them weren’t serial killers (though some of his ancestors were discovered to have murderous pasts). This proves that genes don’t necessarily mean someone’s personality will be one way or the other, but they can play a role. What was found to be the main trigger for whether these genes were a factor or not was whether or not the person had a traumatic childhood. In the event of a happy, nurtured childhood, these genes would never pose a problem, with a less fortunate one though, things become bleaker. Now, there are still some who believe this is nonsense and genes play no role. Other scientists believe that our first six years of life can determine how we act later in life. The notion that we have one personality is being stepped away from and being replaced with the idea that people have multiple personalities depending on the situation they are in and these roles we take are dependent on how responsive parents are, what your position in the family is, and the narrative your parents had for you based on their own childhoods. Again, the quality of your childhood is not an end all be all, simply a starting point that can potentially be changed later in life. An interesting point that has been discussed, though, is what our society would be like if people stopped assuming their children are genetically wired to be a certain way and started owning up to the idea that they have an immense role in the character of their child. So, where do you stand on this debate? Do you agree with the notion that our genes are more likely to drive us towards a certain personality? Do you think a person’s experience will have a greater affect on how they act? It’s a complicated phenomenon, one we may not fully understand for a very long time, but it’s pretty amazing to have at least come this far in uncoding it. References: Ashley, Sarah. “Do You Have the Serial Killer Gene?” Modern Notion, 2 Oct. 2015, Smallman, Etan. “What Gives Us Our Personality? Nature Takes on Nurture.” Metro, 30 May 2015,

Starving for perfection?

Starving for perfection? Is it worth it? Sababa Anber

Did you know that around 10 million females and about 1 million males suffer from a type of anorexia or bulimia in the United States? In fact, millions of people more are struggling with compulsive eating disorder, which is about a 70 million people worldwide. Interestingly, the number of reported cases of young women suffering from anorexia, between the age of 15 and 19 has escalated every decade since 1930. Eating disorders consists of different types, such as anorexia nervosa, which is the fear of gaining weight, bulimia nervosa is the act of binge eating then purging or vomiting, and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and binge eating disorder falls under that, which is eating until uncomfortably full in one sitting. Compulsive (or binge) eating disorder is quite alike as bulimia in various ways. Such as, in both disorders, a person feels guilty and are regretful about overeating. However, purge eating is not seen in people who suffer from compulsive eating disorder. They therefore, tend to be overweight or obese which could lead to several cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure. About 1800 to 2600 calories a day is the normal, healthy, amount of food for an average teenager or an adult. However, during a bingeing episode, a person can eat about 25 times that amount, which could be equivalent to eating an entire chocolate cake or even an extra-large pepperoni pizza. Actually, people who binge eat, tend to consume these several times during the day! Research studies show that in the development of eating disorders, a significant role is played by genetic factors. For instance, the relatives of women who suffer from anorexia tends to be 11 times more likely to develop anorexia, while relatives of women with bulimia are four times more likely to develop that. The most devastating effects seen in people with Eating Disorders include depression, isolation, lack of self-respect, substance abuse, feelings of incompetence, rage, and anxiety. Especially, people who are either admired or mocked for their weight are at a greater risk of developing these symptoms. It is imperative to help people who are suffering from eating disorders. If your loved one is suffering from eating disorders, it is essential to communicate your concerns in a caring and supportive way. Most importantly, confronting the person you care about is a crucial step in order to get them both the help as well as the treatment that they deserve. Start with a casual conversation if you must, but it’s better to open up and talk about it, than suffer in silence. References: 1. Eating Disorders Statistics.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Association Disorders. 2012. Accessed: April 20, 2012. 2. Sonenklar, Carol. 2011. Anorexia and Bulimia (USA Today Health Reports: Diseases and Disorders).  Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books

Selective Memory

Selective Memory – brain blog article by Bella Blumenschein


It is crazy to think about how our brains physically change when we form memories. When studying this process, we learn about how the neuroanatomical processes help us create these memories and store them in different brain regions. Even more fascinating is the fact that some of our memories are not even accurate, and we sometimes genuinely believe in stuff that never even happened, or happened in a completely different way. Facts, events, or specific stimuli are called declarative memories, and those declarative memories of personal events specific to a time and place in our past are labeled episodic memories. When we talk about selective memory, we refer to these events in our past, but not everything we experience is actually stored in our brains. Instead there are several factors that lead us to remember some, and forget about others.  My goal here, however, is not to list the different potential triggers of selective memory, but instead focus on the one that intrigues me the most.


It is known that the parts of the brain such as the amygdala and cerebellum that are responsible for emotional arousal are also involved in the consolidation of memories. However, I wonder until what point is this process a physiological and chemical one. It is sometimes hard for me to believe everything that happens inside our heads is just a product of nature, especially when it comes to the way our emotions manifest themselves and influence how other processes work. It is easier to comprehend that in general, events that are emotionally charged, such as the car accident I was in over ten years ago, are vividly remembered, while I wouldn’t be able to tell you whatever boring thing I was doing at this time last month. This seems evolutionarily beneficial.


What does not seem to make sense to me is how when we develop feelings towards something, somewhere, or someone, we tend to shape our memories around the way we idealize them, and forget whatever does not coordinate with these idealizations. Is that biological or do we do it to ourselves in the sense that we force our minds to remember some stuff and forget others? To put into perspective, in a relationship I experienced in which we both hurt each other to the point of becoming very distant and not talking anymore, whenever I think of the situation, I remember everything I did that could’ve ruined it, and do not have one single memory of being hurt by that person without it having been my fault. My friends, however, are able to recall and tell me about various of these situations and even with them reporting them to me, I do not seem to remember experiencing that. What I remember from our relationship is the fact that I screwed up many times, and feel the guilt of being fully responsible for us growing apart. Till this day I wonder, how did my brain mechanisms influence the way I remember this experience in a certain way, without letting me see any differently.