The Giving Brain: A Look at the Neurology of Altruism


Economist Dr. William T. Harbaugh and psychologist Dr. Ulrich Mayr of the University of Oregon set out to reveal what is really happening within the brains of people who give and whether the neuroarchitecture of giving can be considered a sign of “pure altruism.” In a study published by Science, Harbaugh’s team gave a cash amount of $100 to each participating subject and placed them within an fMRI scanner. A computer screen placed before each of the subjects presented them with opportunities to donate to a food bank. Donations were either made voluntarily or involuntarily (with forced donations between $15 to $45 being made). Participants were instructed that they could keep any money left over at the end of the study session.

When subjects were donating voluntarily or involuntarily the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain associated with the processing of unexpected rewards, became active. Within this particular region of the brain lie neurons that secrete dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in reward-motivated behavior. The team found higher amounts of dopamine within the nucleus accumbens of each subject when voluntarily choosing to donate as opposed to when they were forced to. Among those who donated voluntarily, there were a particular few whose nucleus accumbens showed exceptionally high activity.

Based upon the degree of activation within these subjects, Harbaugh could reliably predict how much they were going to give. These “supergivers” were labeled as the most altruistic. However, subjects who showed less nucleus accumbens activity when seeing their money go to charity were ironically designated by the researchers as being the most “altruistic” in nature. They gave knowing it was for the betterment of others, despite feeling a personal loss.

It seems that affective neuroscience has shown that “pure altruism,” in the technical sense, is neurologically impossible. Analogous to the idea that one can always conceive of a perfect circle and never be able to physically produce one, we can only conceive of a purely altruistic act and never be able to find ourselves truly without reward or recognition. Whether we expect a reward or not, the midbrain will become activated in regions typically associated with reward during any altruistic behavior. This occurs regardless of whether we are sad or happy with our decision. Whether the individual feels gratified due to his or her actions is irrelevant to this “hardwired” reward activity. This may support the theory of psychological egoism, that any act considered to be altruistic is not truly altruistic in nature simply due to the fact that the individual always displays a neurological (conscious or subconscious) form of personal gratification.

But should we be so quick to lose faith in our neurological capability to be altruistic without the expectation or sign of a reward? Recent findings in neuroplasticity have shown that the brain changes according to experience. Through activities like focusing, contemplating, and giving, the brain can grow and change in regions associated with attention, compassion, and maybe even altruism. This experiential effect on the brain is so strong that there have been recent findings which support the principle of epigenetics — the process by which gene expression can be regulated by one’s environmental interactions. As gene expression is transformed and our brains are rewired, drastic downstream effects can occur within the body to our physical health. Hypothetically speaking, if we were to consistently practice giving without consciously expecting something in return, would that change our gene expressions for reward processing and, in turn, make us physically healthier? Is altruism a trainable skill? The field of contemplative neuroscience may be where the answer lies.

Numerous studies have already shown that compassion training can improve personal well-being, stress-related immune responses and even increase prosocial behavior toward others. Empirical evidence shows that compassion training increases altruistic behavior by decreasing personal distress, reducing avoidance behavior and regulating our emotional responses. Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, may be one of the most pioneering figures in determining how contemplative practices can make us more altruistic.

Davidson and his team of researchers at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Madison, Wisconsin, published an article entitled “Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering.” The study took 56 subjects and randomly assigned them to either a compassion training group or cognitive reappraisal group. Both interventions trained in emotion regulation strategies but differed in their approach. The purpose of compassion training was to increase empathic concern along with the desire to relieve suffering whereas the purpose of the cognitive reappraisal intervention was to decrease one’s personal distress. Each participant in either group trained for 30 minutes a day for two weeks. By taking fMRI scans before and after the two-week training period, it was seen that participants who trained in compassion meditation showed an increase in altruistic redistribution of funds and displayed altered activation within regions such as the inferior parietal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex within the brain. These regions are associated with social cognition and emotional regulation, key players in cultivating altruistic behavior.

A couple of years previous, I was invited to work at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in Madison, Wisconsin under the direction of Davidson to take part in a study that investigated how mindfulness-compassion activities for preschoolers and kindergarteners nurtured their self-control, emotional regulation, and altruism. Similar to the widely used economic decision-making tasks administered in the previous studies, the children were given stickers instead of money, to distribute into either one of two envelopes. One envelope was for themselves and the other for a sick child. They were instructed that they must distribute all of the stickers however they so choose. Some of the children were then randomized into an 8 to 12 week “Kindness Curriculum.”

Upon the completion of the program after a year, the sticker distribution task was administered again. To our astonishment, the children placed in the KC group maintained their initial levels of altruism, while the children in the control group, who did not undergo the KC, became more selfish. This study shows that interventions, such as compassion and kindness training, may have drastic impacts on the development of altruistic systems at an early age. This type of rewiring may lead to positive changes on the behavioral development of a child throughout his or her life.

We may be born thinking of ourselves, but by engaging in the act of giving, we can ignite a strong neurological network comprised of multiple regions of our brain that can over time transform the way we behave and socialize with others. And for those who still feel at a loss when giving, just know that your brain is putting on quite a show.

This article was first published in the print edition of Brain World Magazine.

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