Compassion in the Brain
There's evidence in brain studies of a "compassion-altruism axis," Post tells WebMD. Utilizing functional MRI scans, scientists have identified specific regions of the brain that are very active during deeply empathic and compassionate emotions, he explains. A new mother's brain -- specifically, the prefrontal lobe -- becomes very active when she looks at a picture of her own baby, compared to other babies' pictures.
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 years.
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.
The Healing Hormone
Indeed, oxytocin may be connected to both physical and emotional well-being, says Fricchione. "Oxytocin is the mediator of what has been called the 'tend-mend' response, as opposed to the 'fight-flight' response to stress. When you're altruistic and touching people in a positive way, lending a helping hand, your oxytocin level goes up - and that relieves your own stress."
In one animal study, researchers looked at the numerous effects that oxytocin can produce in lab rats -- lower blood pressure, lower levels of stress hormones, and an overall calming effect.
Altruistic behavior may also trigger the brain's reward circuitry -- the 'feel-good' chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, and perhaps even a morphine-like chemical the body naturally produces, Fricchione explains. "If altruistic behavior plugs into that reward circuitry, it will have the potential to reduce the stress response. And if the altruistic behavior continues to be rewarding, it will be reinforced."
Again, Scrooge is a good example, says Post. "He comes alive because of his benevolent affections and emotions. What's really happening is that he's tapping into the whole neurology, endocrinology, and immunology of generosity.
All the great spiritual traditions and the field of positive psychology are emphatic on this point -- "that the best way to get rid of bitterness, anger, rage, jealousy is to do unto others in a positive way," Post tells WebMD. "It's as though you somehow have to cast out negative emotions that are clearly associated with stress -- cast them out with the help of positive emotions."