Mind hardwired to reward good?

There is a strong correlation between doing good deeds and brain-activated chemical reward in humans.

A friend recently said she’d had a profoundly meaningful week. She had been volunteering for an organisation that mentors children with learning difficulties and her efforts had produced a good result with one of her students.

“It was like watching a flower open up,” she said, “just seeing the understanding in his eyes as he began to grasp something.

“I felt as if I’d made a difference. I felt I was using all the skills I’d learned over my life and was able to pass them on, to be of service. It gave me a great sense of satisfaction.”

Last week, I was similarly moved by a contribution I was able to make, even though it was tiny. I came home from a night out to find a wounded baby parrot on my front door. I found a grocery box and drove the bird to the emergency vet. The creature screamed and was clearly in pain. Each cry was like a gash to my insides but I told myself calmly that I needed to do this.

Sadly, the bird had to be euthanased, which made me very upset. But the vet said that had the bird not found me he faced days in agony. Ending a creature’s suffering brought me a sense of meaning and purpose, in the same way that helping a struggling student did for my friend.

Interestingly, a University of Oregon study has just found that kind behaviour, altruism, charitable deeds, and giving back increases as we age. It was reported: “General benevolence is more strongly expressed in the second half of the lifespan. People older than 45 receive more neural reward from seeing others better off, they give more money away and they score higher on pro-social personality traits than those under 45.”

But regardless of age, the study also reinforced findings that there is a strong correlation between doing good deeds and brain-activated chemical reward in humans. That nexus has increasingly interested neuroscientists in recent years, including the director of brain injury research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Jordan Grafman, who’s been investigating specific regions of the human brain that give rise to altruistic behaviour and nurturing social impulses.

About a decade ago, Grafman began to investigate where empathy and generosity originated, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to see which parts of the brain were engaged as people did various deeds or felt kindly towards others. The results showed that when people made the decision to donate to a worthy cause, parts of the midbrain lit up; this is the region that controls cravings for sex, food and pleasure, and it also became active when the subjects put money into their private accounts.

Also stimulated was an area containing oxytocin receptors, “the cuddle chemical”, a hormone that promotes social bonding.

So kindness was giving people a dopamine or reward hit. Similar later tests by neuroscientists prompted some cynics to question whether one can be “too” or “pathologically” altruistic (for instance those who give away kidneys to strangers) to get the chemical kick or at least some unconscious payback.

The question remains: why does giving back give us such a sense of meaning and achievement? Are we hardwired? Current wisdom says that altruism exists on a biological level because it helps ensure our survival as a species. A willingness to do good and contribute to the wellbeing of the tribe helps one to become valued — and remain valued (and hence safe) — particularly as one ages. Hence the increased tendency to want to give more with age.

In light of this, I just hope my tribe values a mad lady who saves screeching parrots and wounded animals, and rescues crawly insects. On second thoughts, maybe I’d better learn knitting.

Reader comments republished from THE AUSTRALIAN

4 people listening



Nice article Ruth and its true at 53 i do much more for others than i did ten years ago.



Have you considered the fact that the vast majority of people spend most of their time in totally self-centred activities designed to gain superiority over others and secure wealth and advantage for themselves?

Perhaps selfishness is also ‘hard-wired’ into human nature? Basically a lot of things are part of human nature and pseudo-evolutionary ‘explanations’ explain nothing.

The important thing about genuine kindness to others is that the motivation normally arises when people are in close contact with others in their community – as in your examples. One reason there is so little genuine kindness today is that people live in ‘boxes’. The communities we were designed by evolution to live in have virtually ceased to exist in ‘advanced’ societies.



Knitting is fine Ruth.

My mother knits jumpers, beannies, scarves & woollen rugs & gives them to St Vinnies for the less well off. Has been for years & that after raising seven kids.

Shame about the parrot but at least you tried.

Maybe you could write witty poems for your friend to read to the kids with learning difficulties.

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