The brain's caudate nucleus (image produced by the Digital Anatomist Project)
"The notion that a bad guy is going to get it is really important to humans," says John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, re the neurological basis of revenge, reports Health News. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth know that, but now scientists are revealing the evolutionary advantage of the vengeance response:
A Swiss brain imaging study shows that punishing people when they behave unfairly activates the same reward circuitry of the brain that is fired up when sniffing cocaine or seeing a beautiful face.
The findings, which appear in the Aug. 27 issue of Science, may partly explain the phenomenon of "altruistic punishment," which is exacting revenge on behalf of a stranger.
"A lot of theoretical work in evolutionary biology and our previous experimental work suggest that altruistic punishment has been crucial for the evolution of cooperation in human societies," said Ernst Fehr, the senior author of the study . . . "Our previous experiments show that if altruistic punishment is possible, cooperation flourishes. If we rule out altruistic punishment, cooperation breaks down."
The study is one of the first to use brain imaging to investigate the phenomenon . . . Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), the researchers scanned the brain activity of the volunteers while they were making the decision to punish or not.
As it turned out, the decision to punish activated the caudate nucleus, a region of the brain involved in experiencing pleasure or satisfaction, Fehr said. Although the study volunteers were engaging in "regular" revenge, the authors think the findings could be extrapolated to altruistic punishment.
[via Frank at The Cool Blue Blog]
If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
-- Shylock's defense from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare from Act III, Scene 1
Do these findings explain why the irresolution of Vietnam's aftermath left us a nation divided? Kerry may be the catalyst -- or perhaps the self-sacrificial lamb -- but this exactment of revenge by a generation of wronged Vietnam veterans now playing out on the national stage may be a necessary catharsis long overdue, an "altruistic punishment" to restore national cooperation.