*Welcome to Part II of The Science Behind Altruism, our series of posts exploring the new scientific discoveries surrounding altruism.
“When I do good, I feel good.” – Abraham Lincoln
Leave it to Honest Abe, who provided America such oratorical masterpieces as the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, to sum up altruism in seven simple words. Plain yet spot-on, what Lincoln described is the core experience of being altruistic: that doing good for others really provides us an unmatched feeling of well-being, simply from knowing we helped another person.
Psychologists call it the “Helper’s High.” But here at AltruHelp we know it’s more than that. Why? Because of the flurry of cutting edge research that is bringing new understanding to how and why this sensation of “feeling good” happens, and the possibilities ahead for recognizing the contributions of altruism to our health and happiness.
Thanks to advances in brain-imaging technology and the advent of neuroeconomics, a new field that applies neuroscience to study economic behavior, scientists have designed several experiments that actually trace altruism—and the pleasure we gain from it—to specific regions and systems in the brain. In fact, two studies offer striking evidence that our brains are naturally wired to help us be altruistic.
The first is a 2006 experiment led by Dr. Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (who once admitted to ESPN that he suffers from his own disorder – rooting for the Cubs!). Grafman wanted to see what parts of the brain are activated when people are altruistic, so he asked volunteers to play a computer game to test their charitable and selfish impulses. The participants were presented with various charitable organizations, and then asked to accept or decline a donation proposed by the computer. To keep things interesting, the game featured only real organizations that take a stance on controversial issues, such as the death penalty, euthanasia, and nuclear power. The goal was to see how willing they were to support or oppose specific causes at a financial cost.
As participants made this judgment call, Grafman and his team were startled by the patterns of brain activity appearing in real-time before their eyes. When the participants donated at a personal cost, this set off the mesolimbic system, an area deep in the brain that shoots off dopamine when we fulfill our most basic needs, such as eating, exercising, and having sex! And when they donated anonymously, a second pleasure system lit up: the subgenual area. Though less sexy sounding than “mesolimbic,” this plays a key role in releasing oxytocin, also known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone because it promotes human bonding. (To learn more see this article from Time.) Together, these pleasure responses offer anatomical proof that the “joy of giving” is a real thing!
Still, a larger mystery remained. As Grafman later explained in an interview with Wired, because the sensation of feeling good “gets fired off in response to lots of activities…it’s not unique to altruism. There must be other brain areas that the [pleasure] system partners with, leading to [altruistic] human behaviors in particular.” What could be this other part of the brain? Grafman’s experiment points to the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC), a region in the front of the brain that is active in making moral judgments and setting long-term goals.
In fact, during the experiment, the participants who reported being the most involved in volunteering and charitable causes showed the highest activity in the aPFC. In essence, the aPFC region of the brain helps us make altruistic choices over our material self-interest.
To be truly altruistic means not expecting anything in return when we help others. As a result, it’s not always easy to be altruistic when the opportunity comes along. Yet as Grafman’s experiment shows, the brain may have its own solution: connecting our abstract moral beliefs with a sense of reward to encourage us to help others beyond whatever constraints we have.
In other words, our brains push us to live up to our true altruistic potential.
So how can we discover our potential? Email the AltrUHelp team at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what skills you can offer to help others and we’ll connect you with personalized & local volunteer opportunities.
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And if you’re wondering if this is it on altruism and the brain, I’ll be back with more. Stay tuned.