Is there a neurological component to selfishness?

Awhile back, I witnessed a mentally retarded person who was severely possessive of a water fountain, claiming it was "his".
I've also seen toddlers exhibit this same behavior.
Is this a form of arrested development?


I'm not sure how constructive it is to think of it in terms of "components", because there are so many that contribute to selfishness: for example, you only feel your body's pain. Food and sex only feel good to you when you're the one experiencing them.

Instead, it might be more constructive to look for components of selflessness and altruism, them being the exception. And that, according to some, lies in kin selection.

  • $\begingroup$ Right, except that I was asking about a specific cause and effect scenario, not a bio-mechanical explanation of why/when humans develop the concept of sharing, etc. $\endgroup$ – Cbaker510 Sep 1 '14 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ How do you mean? $\endgroup$ – Keegan Keplinger Sep 1 '14 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I'm looking for a clear, concise exploration of the human mind, and you're offering culty psychobabble. $\endgroup$ – Cbaker510 Sep 6 '14 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ I'm still not clear what you're asking and your comments are getting pejorative. Please keep a civil tone. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Keplinger Sep 6 '14 at 13:40

Improving your self-image (having more posessions, looking better, and all the other components of selfishness) probably engages various subcortical emotional circuits involving the amygdala, hypothalamus, and so on. This is where basic drives are also implemented. This is by far not a disorder, nor necessarily a subject for neurology! Selfishness, in moderation, helps you improve yourself (and the genes of your successors, by picking good mates!) whilst giving you an advantage through the posessions you collect. It can also help society - some great inventions of mankind were developed because scientists wanted a discovery to be "theirs". However, assuming somebody incessantly steals from others, this could be a neurological symptom where the "selfishness" has gone wrong - when everyone hates you it's generally maladaptive, I guess. When you constantly cling to the same object, it's probably also a sign of something gone wrong - although it might be solvable by a psychotherapist, not necessarily requiring a neurological explanation...

  • $\begingroup$ Useful insight, except: "not necessarily requiring a neurological explanation", as a philosopher, and computer scientist, I can attest that the human mind is akin to a computer: for every dysfunction, there is a solution. Irrational hoarding MUST have a neurological, logical component, or else it is a bug. $\endgroup$ – Cbaker510 Sep 6 '14 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ I do agree that irrational hoarding has a neural basis - it must. In addition, it is also a bug when it is irrational, except that I'm not so sure this bug is necessarily "logical" (I'll interpret a "logical bug" as being a misimplementation of some algorithm) in nature. When some protein systems malfunction, for example, the basis is decidedly biological - so it is algorithmic insofar as biochemistry is algorithmic. The only reason I said it may not require a neurological explanation is that the hoarding might be most usefully described on a higher (psychological level) in some cases. $\endgroup$ – user6682 Sep 8 '14 at 5:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ By the way, neurology is the study of brain disorders - the field only concerns itself with "bugs", and only at the neural level. Additionally, Keegan Keplinger's answer is anything but "psychobabble" - he was merely saying that selfishness is the very basis of cognition because brains tend to approach things that feel good to the body and avoid things that feel bad to the body. After all, the evolutionary purpose of the brain is to maintain the body long enough to reproduce... $\endgroup$ – user6682 Sep 8 '14 at 7:32

Hypothalamus (mediating the four F's) septal area and amygdala (hedonic states); orbito-frontal cortex, mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway (incentive orientation), for some contributory possibilities.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer could use some fleshing out. $\endgroup$ – anongoodnurse Sep 8 '14 at 3:30

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