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January 4, 2011
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Joy of Giving


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   12.20.06
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Is it really more rewarding to give than to receive? As this ScienCentral News video reports, brain imaging research is unwrapping what's behind the joy of giving.

"'Tis Better to Give Than Receive"

The phrase typically attributed to a verse in the Christian New Testament is now proving to be hard-wired into our brains. Brain scanning research is revealing that generosity seems to be a built in human trait.

"You give from the heart and… it satisfies your brain," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Grafman and his team study aspects of the human brain that set us apart from other species, with the aim of using that knowledge to better test when things go wrong in our brains, and whether new treatments are effective. They decided to study which areas of the human brain are involved in donating to organizations "because we know that that's something that other species just don't do," he says.





They used a technique called functional MRI. It reveals which brain structures are most active relative to the rest of the brain when people perform certain mental tasks. They asked 19 healthy volunteers to play a computer game while having their brains scanned. In addition to dispensing cash rewards, the game also asked for donations to charities. "When they donated, either they could donate and it wouldn't cost them personally or they could donate and it might cost them some money," explains Grafman.

Grafman
The researchers weren't surprised that when people received money in the game, it lit up structures deep in the brain associated with the release of the chemical dopamine, which is known to trigger feelings of pleasure and reward. (This chemical is also associated with our motivation to seek (or crave) food, drugs or love.)





But as they reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences donating to charities lit up the brain's reward circuits even more than receiving cash.

"The same regions of the brain that are associated with the reward and the good feeling you have when you get something yourself, like money, were the same areas that were activated when you give. That surprised us," says Grafman. "And not only were the same areas involved, but in fact they were more activated when you give than when you receive."

And giving also excited areas of the brain that are not activated by receiving. One produces the so-called "cuddle hormone" oxytocin. "It's very well known that oxytocin is released when people feel an attachment," Grafman says.




"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."

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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."

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This material is made possible by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academies.

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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).


 
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