Since it’s supposed to be the season of charity, that time of year when we remember those who are less fortunate than we are, I thought I’d post on altruism and the brain, since there have recently been a few interesting studies. The basic moral of these experiments is that we are built to be altruistic. We are social animals that have evolved the ability to care about each other.
Consider a paper recently published in Nature Neuroscience. Scientists at Duke University imaged the brains of people as they observed a computer play a simple video game. Because the subjects were told that the computer was playing the game for a specific purpose⎯it wanted to earn money⎯their brains automatically treated the computers like “intentional agents,” complete with goals and feelings. (Our mind is so eager to detect other minds that it often imbues inanimate objects, like computers and stuffed animals, with mental states.) Once that happened, the scientists were able to detect activity in those specialized brain areas, like the superior temporal sulcus, that help us theorize and sympathize with the emotions of other people. Even though the subjects knew they were watching a computer, they couldn’t help but imagine what the computer was feeling.
Now comes the interesting part: The scientists noticed that, during the experiment, there was a lot of individual variation. Some people had very active sympathetic brains, while others seemed rather uninterested in thinking about the feelings of someone else. So the scientists conducted a survey of altruistic behavior, asking people how likely they would be to “help a stranger carry a heavy object” or “let a friend borrow a car”. That’s when the correlation became clear: People who showed more brain activity in their sympathetic regions were also much more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior. Because they intensely imagined the feelings of other people, they wanted to make other people feel better, even if it came at personal expense.
But here’s the lovely secret of altruism: It feels good. The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable; being nice to others makes us feel nice. An elegant brain imaging experiment proves the point. A few dozen people were each given $128, and allowed to choose between keeping the money or donating it to charity. When they chose to give away the money, the reward centers of the brain became active. Dopamine flooded their synapses, and they experienced the delightful glow of unselfishness. From the perspective of our brain, giving was literally better than getting. Thoreau was right: “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”