"It definitely seems like you're going to get more pleasure, if these brain activations can be any guide, when you're giving than when you're simply receiving."And while those two feel-good brain structures are common to other species, the researchers also found what they set out to look for-- activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that's involved in reasoning and moral decision-making and which is much less developed in other species. This region was engaged only when people made particularly costly donations, suggesting that the brain region uniquely developed in humans, contributes to this uniquely human behavior.
"One of the unique things about people," says Grafman, is "they're willing to sacrifice something-- money, time, many things-- in order to support other people or organizations they have no direct relationship with. These are not brothers, sisters, cousins, part of their local tribe."
Another traditional aspect tied to giving is the concept of not seeking recognition or approval for doing it (which can also be traced to a New Testament verse).
Interestingly, the team's experiments ruled out those motivations. "One of the nice aspects of this study was people were not donating simply because they thought somebody else would see them donate or know that they donated a certain amount," explains Grafman. So their brain activations were not "really reflecting their expectation that somebody was going to pat them on the back. Not at all-- they were donating anonymously and this brain activation occurred simply with the act of donation," he says.
Grafman points out that while kids get excited about receiving gifts, their parents prefer the Santa Claus role. "I think if you have young children you can see that they're much more excited when they're receiving something and they don't like giving something up to somebody else. So clearly, donating is a much more learned behavior than simply taking or receiving from others ... in some sense, you have to experience donation, you have to be persuaded to donate in the beginning. But once you do donate you'll come back and give more because you'll realize what a pleasurable sensation it was to donate."And he notes that the frontal lobes of the human brain are not only the most recently evolved, they are still evolving. He believes that donating and giving "more often in various ways is only going to support our own brain's evolution. It's good for the species-- donate."
Grafman's research was published in the October 17, 2006 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His research is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).