The Science of Good Deeds
The 'helper's high' could help you live a longer, healthier life.
Compassion in the Brain continued...
"This is extremely important," Post says. "This is the
care-and-connection part of the brain. It is a very different part of the brain
than is active with romantic love. These brain studies show this profound state
of joy and delight that comes from giving to others. It doesn't come from any
dry action -- where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing
a check for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality
-- from interacting with people. There is the smile, the tone in the voice, the
touch on the shoulder. We're talking about altruistic love."
Brain chemicals also enter into this picture of altruism. A recent study has
identified high levels of the "bonding" hormone oxytocin in people who
are very generous toward others. Oxytocin is the hormone best known for its
role in preparing mothers for motherhood. Studies have also shown that this
hormone helps both men and women establish trusting relationships.
The Evolution of Kindness
"Humans have evolved to be caring and helpful to those around us,
largely to ensure our survival," says Post. "In Darwin's Descent of
Man, he mentions survival of the fittest only twice. He mentions
benevolence 99 times."
Humans are mammals, and like other mammals we are social animals. As we
evolved, our social bonds helped ensure our survival, explains Harvard
psychiatry associate professor Gregory L. Fricchione, MD. Fricchione is working
on a book about brain evolution and the development of human altruism.
"If it is evolutionarily beneficial for human beings to benefit from
social support, you would expect that evolution would provide the species with
the capacity to provide social support," he tells WebMD. "This is where
the human capacity for altruism may come from."
The Impact of Genetics and Environment
An interplay of our genetics and our environment - especially in our early
years - will play into whether we develop into altruistic individuals.
"It's a bit like the traits of shyness and extroversion; people are found
at all parts of the spectrum. You would expect that some people would have the
capacity to be more altruistic than others -- and some preliminary findings
that suggest how this capacity may emerge," says Fricchione, who is also
associate chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
He's referring to a small study published recently, which looked at oxytocin
levels in children's urine while they interacted with their parents. One group
was composed of orphans who had spent the first 16 months of life in overseas
orphanages - neglected before being adopted by U.S. families. The other group
of kids had been raised in stable, caring homes during their earliest
The adopted orphans had produced lower levels of urinary oxytocin after
being with their mothers, compared with children raised in nurturing homes
since birth. "This may be a clue to a 'window of opportunity' in children's
development, that those who grow up to be empathic, caring, and more altruistic
in later life were nurtured more in their earlier years," Fricchione says.
"That nurturing may help develop the altruistic capacity."
Future research might focus on whether the experience of being well cared
for in early childhood could enhance the development of so-called "mirror
neurons" that enable us to have empathic responses to the emotional states
we witness in others, he says.