For the first time, researchers have uncovered a neural link between extraordinary altruism and empathy, showing that people who are truly altruistic are more sensitive to a stranger’s fear and pain. The finding is published in Psychological Science.
The team saw that, compared to a control group, altruistic people had more activity in the anterior insula, a region of the brain associated with important emotions like pain and disgust. The study was made possible by selecting participants that had performed a selfless act without accepting anything in return, thus exhibiting “pure human altruism”.
"This can be hard to study in a lab because it's based on self-reporting and inherently, in that process, there may be biases," lead author Dr Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz, from the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. "So we took this population of real-world altruists, people who have donated a kidney to a stranger, to try to better understand their empathic process."
The team recruited 57 people, 29 extraordinary altruists and 28 healthy adults who had not donated a kidney to act as a control group. They all completed a questionnaire about altruism and were paired with a stranger and monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They then took part in three tasks. In the first two, the participants saw a video of their test partner experiencing painful pressure on their right thumbnail. In the third one, it was the participants themselves that experienced the pain. To differentiate between pain and fear, the task had “safe” intervals where no pain would occur and “threat” intervals where the pressure could occur without warning.
The participants’ brain activity was recorded in all three tasks using fMRI scans. The team looked at the volunteers' brain activity during direct experiences of pain or fear and compared it to when they were watching their partner experience these feelings instead. They found that truly selfless people had unmistakably similar brain activity during both conditions. Essentially, they felt what the other person felt.
"Prior research of ours has shown that these donors demonstrate more neural sensitivity to distress, specifically fear, in other individuals," Brethel-Haurwitz explained. "The amygdala [part of the brain involved in processing emotions] was more active when they viewed photos of people in fear, but there wasn't someone actually in distress in front of them. Here, when the altruists are feeling pain and watching the pain of others, the neural activity matches pretty closely."
The study also confirms the importance of the anterior insula. The scans suggest that this region might be important in responding to distress-related emotions. Part of the team will continue to study altruism but Brethel-Haurwitz will actually do the opposite, looking into why selfish individuals make selfish decisions.