Altruism, the act of giving unselfishly, is an enigma to neuroscience. The theory of evolution says that organisms will behave in a way to ensure their own survival and that of their offspring. So how did altruistic behavior come to be? Is it beneficial to the giver?
Giving Activates Brain Circuits
Some interesting recent research begins to unveil pieces of the puzzle. When neuroscientist monitor the brains of people either giving or getting there are some commonalities. Especially in a part of the brain that helps control pleasure and survival behaviors like the search for food or sex.
It seems that both giving and getting activate pleasure centers. This gives immediate gratification to altruistic behavior. However, these brain regions also exist in animals where they are responsible for similar survival behaviors and animals aren’t typically altruistic so there must be something more.
Now, new data shows that givers, but not getters, involve a couple other brain regions in the cerebral cortex. These regions are only well developed in humans and are involved in higher levels of thinking and processing information.
You can interpret this in lots of ways. One way is to see altruistic behavior as more driven by higher thoughtfulness, and getting behaviors driven more by animal-like desires. This is not to difficult to grasp, but let’s dig a little deeper.
Use It or Lose It
We know that the brain is constantly remodeling itself. Brain circuits that get used a lot strengthen and develop while those that don’t get used a lot wither and fade. This is one-way that behaviors get entrenched into habits.
So think about that in the context of altruism. The act of giving might actually strengthen certain brain circuits in regions that are involved in higher levels of thinking, especially those that control social interactions. This can be adaptive to you by improving parts of your brain that control higher thinking and your ability to work with other people.
The basis of many religious and secular philosophies is to give before you get. Zig Ziglar, one of the grandfathers of personal development said help enough people get what they want and you can have everything that you want’. Now, Zig and others are not saying you should be altruistic for the purpose of getting stuff in return but it just always seems to work out this way.
Science Catches up to Wisdom
Perhaps the recent work in neuroscience is beginning to explain why this is true. The act of giving may actually improve your skills to work productively with other people, which is the best way to enhance your own life as well.
Looking at that another way, if you are always looking to receive you are thinking very short term (animal-like survival) in your behavior. Whereas, if you are always willing to give and help, you are thinking long term, even if you don’t realize it at the time. This would explain how altruistic behavior can get improve your odds of surviving and passing your genes to the next generation which is the driving force behind evolutionary theory.
It doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to the theory of evolution or creationism or something in between. The bottom line is that altruistic behavior my actually improve the most human’ parts of your brain and make you a higher functioning person.
It always amazes me when 21st century science catches up to age-old wisdom.
Copyright (c) 2007 The Brain Code LLC