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Visual cues initiate the brain's decision to cooperate

Scientists have made a significant leap in understanding how the brain processes visual cues to inform social behavior. The research, conducted by experts at Rice University, was particularly focused on the decision to cooperate. 

“Social interactions represent a ubiquitous aspect of our everyday life that we acquire by interpreting and responding to visual cues from conspecifics,” wrote the study authors.  “However, despite the general acceptance of this view, how visual information is used to guide the decision to cooperate is unknown.”

The role of the visual cortex 

To investigate, the researchers analyzed the behavior of freely moving macaques. They used a combination of behavioral analysis, wireless eye tracking, and neural monitoring.

The study presents the first evidence of the visual cortex’s active role in social interactions. This brain region provides crucial signals to the prefrontal cortex to initiate cooperation.

Critical new insights 

“We are the first to use telemetric devices to record neural activity from multiple cortical populations in the visual and prefrontal cortex while animals explore their environment and interact with one another,” said Professor Valentin Dragoi.

“Until now, we didn’t know how what we are looking at guides our decision to cooperate or not, because of our inability to measure oculomotor events and correlate them with what neurons are doing in that instant. Because the technology was not there, that knowledge was just unattainable.”

Recording neural activity 

The study marks a significant departure from traditional neuroscience research, which typically involves restrained animals responding to artificial stimuli in isolation.

The ability to record neural activity from animals in motion opens new avenues for understanding the brain’s functionality. 

“This has been the golden dream of neuroscientists for a long time — to record from neurons on the fly while the animal is free-moving,” said Professor Dragoi.

“We tracked populations of neurons in the visual cortex — the part of the brain that extracts information about vision — and the prefrontal cortex — an executive area that encodes our decision to carry out certain actions.”

Active versus passive vision

The experimental setup involved pairs of macaques learning to cooperate to obtain a food reward. Their progress and interactions were closely monitored over several weeks as they learned to work together for food reward.

Previously, the monkeys had been taught to press a button to gain access to a snack tray. But during the trials, the pairs of monkeys could only gain access to snack trays when they pressed the button simultaneously.

The experts observed an increase in the frequency of socially relevant cues, such as eye contact and body positioning, prior to successful cooperative actions. 

This understanding of active versus passive vision underscores the significance of purpose-driven visual engagement in social interactions.

Study significance 

“This technology allows us to differentiate between active and passive vision,” said Professor Dragoi. “Active vision is when we act on a stimulus we’re looking at with a purpose in mind. When I’m engaged in social interaction, I’m acting in some way, extracting visual information and using that information to cooperate.” 

“Our main finding is getting to see how sensory neuron populations extract information, transmit it to an executive area and how they synchronize in real time to underlie the decision to cooperate.”

Cooperation among animals

Cooperation among animals is a widespread phenomenon that manifests in various fascinating forms across the animal kingdom. This behavior, which involves individuals working together towards a common goal, often leads to enhanced survival and reproductive success. 

Cooperation can be seen in both intraspecific interactions, where members of the same species collaborate, and interspecific interactions, where members of different species work together for mutual benefit.


One of the most striking examples of cooperation is seen in the hunting strategies of certain predators. Lions, wolves, and dolphins use group tactics to capture prey that would be too challenging to overcome as individuals. 

Lions coordinate attacks in their prides, wolves use elaborate chase and ambush techniques in packs, and dolphins herd fish into tight balls or use mud rings to trap them for easier feeding.


Altruism and kin selection represent another facet of animal cooperation. Individuals perform acts that benefit others at a cost to themselves, often to aid their relatives. This increases the overall genetic success of their family. 

For example, meerkats take turns to stand guard and alert their group of approaching predators. Similarly, Belding’s ground squirrels use alarm calls to warn their kin of danger.

Mutual benefits 

Mutualism is a form of cooperation where both parties gain a direct benefit. Partnerships between plants and animal pollinators, like bees and birds, highlight the mutual benefits derived from cooperative interactions.


Cooperative breeding is another interesting aspect, where individuals assist in the rearing of offspring that are not their own. Among African wild dogs, pack members help feed and protect the alpha pair’s pups.

Social structure

Eusociality, found in certain insects like ants, bees, and termites, represents the pinnacle of cooperative behavior. These complex societies have a clear division of labor and cooperatively care for the young.

These societies are highly organized, with individuals sacrificing their own reproductive opportunities to support the colony.

The evolution of cooperation in animals is driven by a combination of direct and indirect fitness benefits, including the immediate advantages to the individual, the genetic benefits of helping relatives, and the potential for future reciprocation. These cooperative behaviors underscore the complexity of animal societies and the evolutionary strategies that facilitate their success.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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