Posted by Renee Schmidt


Altruism is fascinating. Partly because it goes against what we understand of human nature —that people inherently desire the greatest amount of instant gratification with the least amount of effort. As I wrote recently, what separates us from our ape cousins is this very desire for instant gratification. Humans, because we have a better-developed pre-frontal cortex, can assess second, third, or even fourth order consequences of any given action, and CHOOSE to inject self-discipline in favor of a longer term outcome (i.e. pain now, gain later). The pre-frontal cortex is involved with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior; all of which, as it turns out, are highly involved in the desire and decision to be altruistic.

“One of the ways we differentiate ourselves from other species is that we have a sense of future. We don’t have to have immediate gratification. But how far can we go into the future? How much of our brain is aimed at doing that?” – Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

I was fascinated by Dr. Grafman’s suggestion, as it was something I had intimated in my previous post. That human ability to delay gratification is THE THING that gives us the ability to activate the ‘third-eye’ and thereby see beyond the five sense. But even if you don’t believe altruism will give you psychic abilities; there are plenty of other (just as shocking) benefits of note. Follow along.

In an emerging field of science called epigenetics, which deals with gene expression, it’s been scientifically documented that environmental choices (the food we eat, where and how we live, how much time we spend alone or in the company of others) have an effect on gene expression. So while passed down genetics from our parents play a role in our health, cognition, and body mass index, just as much depends on the choices we make every day. The most interesting part of this study regards inflammation in the body, which is a barometer of immune function (or our ability to fight off or be susceptible to disease). Inflammation can work in one of two ways – on one hand it is a powerful force that is needed to bring healing. On the other, chronic inflammation, even of the low-grade variety, is the underpinning of many deadly diseases, including heart disease and cancer. In one study, two focus groups of individuals were observed. The first group was people who made healthy lifestyle choices regarding foods consumed, where they lived, etc. These individuals were also moderately active. Despite their good measurable health, their epigenetic marker for chronic inflammation was in the ON position. Conversely, there was a second group of like subjects, which too made healthy choices and exercised moderately; however, the second group was also altruistic —they donated time or money —routinely finding ways to get outside themselves. In this second group, they found the epigenetic marker for inflammation in the OFF position. The only difference between the two groups was whether or not they were sharing! Meaning, taking care of oneself, while it can lead to good health, still leaves one susceptible to chronic disease. Whereas when we share with ourselves for the purpose of sharing with others, then we are NOT susceptible to disease in this same way. Without analyzing this in too great a context (I can recommend excellent books on this for those interested), being altruistic is selfishly a way to live a healthier and longer life. Even if you take top notch care of self, but you do it for yourself, you’re leaving an opening for harbingers of negativity to come in.

In another study, which evaluated donations to what participants viewed as a worthy organization, participants could choose to donate money, refuse to donate money, or add money to a separate account that they could take home at the end of the study. Brain scans found that those who made the decision to donate experienced stimulation in parts of the midbrain —the pleasure center, which is the region that controls cravings for food and sex, and is also the same region that became active when the subjects added money to their personal take-home accounts. Sharing with others activated the same region of the brain as receiving for ourselves. This evidence suggests that there is a biological basis for giving and that it’s actually rewarding to give: the brain experiences a pleasurable response from altruism. We are generous creatures by nature and altruism is AS pleasurable as serving one’s self interest. This suggests that altruism can be learned and that perhaps future therapies will be tailored for people who have problems generating empathy or who want to improve their existing capacity for altruism. Moreover, giving to charity is, surprisingly, neurologically similar to ingesting an addictive drug or learning you’ve received a winning lottery ticket. I liken these responses to the euphoria of feeling ‘out of control,’ the feeling associated with love, drugs, and apparently giving that is beyond logic. And the kicker? Even when subjects were required to donate, this pleasurable response persisted, though not as strong as those who choose to donate on their own.

So if you want some neurological pleasure or you desire to live a longer, healthier life, the solution is simple: do for others. Selfishly, it will serve you as well.