What does being generous do to our brains?
Researchers trying to answer the question have found that providing social support to other people activates two specific regions in the brain previously associated with parental care behaviour in animals.
However, results showed that only “targeted” support – where people were directly involved in helping others – was seen to have positive health effects. Providing “untargeted” support such as giving to charity did not have the same outcome.
The researchers from the University of Pittsburgh in the US believe their work could help understand more about the beneficial effects of human social bonding.
The team wrote in their paper: “Our results highlight the unique benefits of giving targeted support and elucidate neural pathways by which giving support may lead to health.”
The researchers performed two separate experiments to see how the brain responded while providing different kinds of social support.
In the first, 45 volunteers performed a task where they had a chance to win rewards for someone close to them who needed money (targeted support), for charity (untargeted support), or for themselves.
The results showed that when providing targeted altruism, the participants felt their support was more effective, in addition to feeling more socially connected.
MRI scans showed that providing support, regardless of who received it, was linked to increased activation of the ventral striatum (VS) and septal area (SA) – the two regions of the brain in animals previously linked to nurturing parental care.
Targeted support was also associated with diminished brain activity in another part of the brain known as the amygdala – the almond-shaped structure linked to fear and stress responses.
In the second experiment, which involved 382 participants undergoing the same tests, those who reported giving more targeted support to others also showed reduced activity in the amygdala.
The authors wrote in their paper: “Humans thrive off social connections and benefit when they act in the service of others’ wellbeing.”
But the researchers are quick to point out there are exceptions – for example, providing targeted social support does not always lead to improved health, like in cases of prolonged caregiving for an ill family member which can have the opposite effect.
However, they believe that offering targeted support could overall provide a health benefit by reducing anxiety and stress.
The team concluded: “Giving targeted support to an identifiable individual in need is uniquely associated with reduced amygdala activity thereby contributing to understanding of how and when giving support may lead to health.”
The research is published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.