Perhaps for as long as humanity has existed, spiritual and philosophical leaders have advocated for altruism as a means of self-betterment. Saint Francis of Assisi said it best, “For it is in giving that we receive.” It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by other prominent minds in history as well. Though repeated often, the sentiment has long been rooted in philosophy without a strong foundation in science. But a study by the neuroscientist Jorge Moll has uncovered some interesting observations about the physical effects altruism can have on our brains and bodies. This article will take a look at Moll’s study and some of the implication of his team’s findings.
A Look at Altruism
The 2006 study, headed by Jorge Moll and conducted along with a team of his colleagues, was created as an exploration of the physical changes that the act of giving has on our brain. In order to investigate these changes, the researchers asked volunteers to make decisions concerning whether or not to donate sums of money to charitable organizations. While participants went through the decision-making process, the team of scientists peered into their brains with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging. fMRI works by creating images of a person’s brain activity to detect chemical changes in their brains. These changes can be as specific as differing patterns of blood oxygenation, which can result from neuron activity.
Result of Research
When analyzing the brain images obtained from the study, researchers observed some interesting similarities between the brains of their volunteers and those of people participating in entirely different acts. What Moll’s team found was that the area of the brain that activated while making decisions concerning altruism is the same area of the brain that is usually activated by food or sex. Other areas of the brain that activated during the study have also been linked to pleasure rewards for activities such as drug use, seeing babies, or interacting with romantic partners.
In other words, the researchers had found evidence that the brains of volunteers were actually rewarding them for making altruistic decisions. Those rewards could have possibly been coming in the form of endorphins, similar to what occurs during the aftereffects of exercise, what is commonly known as a “runner’s high.” In fact, this phenomenon has actually been observed in those who give to others, causing scientists to dub this effect the “helper’s high.”
The Work of Jorge Moll
Research such as this study from Jorge Moll and his team has the potential to alter our view of both altruism and our general perception of the human brain. Though the work is expanding the boundaries of our understanding, it’s not unusual for Moll to be associated with findings of this magnitude. That is in part due to a long career of dedicated research in his field. A prominent neuroscientist who has participated in studies across the globe, Dr. Moll earned his undergraduate degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and later earned his Ph.D. in experimental pathophysiology from São Paulo University.
After obtaining his education, Moll went on to become a visiting research fellow at a number of institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Stanford University. He’s also served as a member of a number of leading scientific organizations, such as the International Neuroethics Society and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. Additionally, he is the president and founder of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education.
With a focus on both the neural mechanisms and the psychology governing human choice, the fact that Jorge Moll has made significant discoveries in his field of research is perhaps unsurprising. The neuroscientist has made a career investigating how social preferences are shaped by values and morals, which is an umbrella that firmly encompasses charitable giving and philanthropy. Past research of Dr. Moll’s has also centered on how social interactions are changed by culture, neurotechnology, and experience.
With the above study by Moll and his research team providing strong evidence for the biological basis of a helper’s high. Many are looking to other possible ways in which those who give may benefit from an act of charity. Numerous studies that have looked at people with physical or mental ailments have, in fact, shown that those who volunteer time or other resources end up receiving numerous benefits in return for their service. In one study, people living with multiple sclerosis were trained to give support over the phone to other people with the disease. Though the duration of the support was only about fifteen minutes per month, researchers found that those who gave help showed better self-esteem, more self-confidence, and less depression than those who did not.
Though the idea has been around for thousands of years, the thought that charitable acts can be beneficial to both the giver and the receiver is something that still remains somewhat of a mystery. Huge numbers of people have experienced it anecdotally, but many have struggled to explain for what reason the effect might exist. With new studies beginning to examine the issue, such as the research by Jorge Moll and his team, we are now beginning to find data-driven answers to some of these age-old questions. As each new study brings not only information but also new avenues to explore, it is clear that there is much to learn about altruism and the way it affects both our bodies and our minds.
More about Jorge Moll and his studies at https://www.livescience.com/52936-need-to-give-boosted-by-brain-science-and-evolution.html