For the first time, a neural link between altruism and empathy toward strangers

September 11, 2018, University of Pennsylvania
For the first time, a neural link between altruism and empathy toward strangers
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz studies extraordinary altruism through people who have donated a kidney to a stranger. Credit: University of Pennsylvania

Giving up a kidney to a stranger requires a certain sense of selflessness, what's come to be known in social science as extraordinary altruism. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz wanted to understand the connection between this trait and empathy, specifically empathy for distress emotions.

Using fMRI scans, Brethel-Haurwitz and colleagues from Georgetown University discovered that these altruistic kidney donors were more sensitive to a stranger's fear and than a control group, with activation happening in a brain region called the anterior insula, which is key for emotions like pain and disgust. This research, published in Psychological Science, is the first to show a clear link between real-world altruism and empathy for the pain of strangers.

"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," says Brethel-Haurwitz, a postdoctoral fellow in Penn's Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences. "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."

It was important for the researchers to get at what Brethel-Haurwitz calls "pure human altruism," a selfless act taken without expectation of anything in return. Donating a kidney is costly and painful and as such altruistic kidney donors often get pushback, not praise, for giving their organ to someone they don't know. Also, the process is often anonymous and nonreciprocal, meaning they may never know or meet the organ recipient. These factors made the group a strong population for such work.

For this study, Brethel-Haurwitz and colleagues recruited 57 people, 29 extraordinary altruists and 28 healthy adults who had not donated a kidney, as the control. After answering a questionnaire to determine baseline empathy, each individual was matched with a stranger as a study partner and then completed a series of 90 task trials, 30 each during three 12-minute blocks.

During the first two blocks, the participant viewed a live video feed of her partner receiving painful pressure to her right thumbnail while researchers monitored brain activity via imaging (fMRI). In Round 3, the participant personally experienced the thumbnail pressure as an fMRI tracked brain function. To differentiate between neural activity related to pain and that related to fear, each trial had periods of anticipation (half in each block were "safe," meaning participants knew no thumb pressure would occur, and half were "threat" trials with the potential for pain) followed by a period during which pain was administered or omitted.

Overlaying the two resulting fMRI brain scans—one made during the altruist's pain, the other while she observed someone else in pain—provided an unmistakable link between the selflessness trait and empathy.

"Prior research of ours has shown that these donors demonstrate more neural sensitivity to distress, specifically fear, in other individuals. The amygdala was more active when they viewed photos of people in fear, but there wasn't someone actually in distress in front of them," Brethel-Haurwitz explains. "Here, when the altruists are feeling pain and watching the pain of others, the neural activity matches pretty closely."

What's more, the results confirm the researchers' theory about the role of the anterior insula, a bilateral region of the brain considered a hub of . "It's thought to be a salience detector, so, when something important is happening, it's more likely to be active," Brethel-Haurwitz explains. "It's also been shown to activate in prior studies of empathy for pain, so we hypothesized it would come up here, though we weren't as certain we would see it for fear." Enhanced self-other overlap in the anterior insula in altruists for both pain and fear suggests that this region may respond more generally to distress-related emotions.

Next Brethel-Haurwitz plans to take her research in a new direction, working with Penn professor Joseph Kable on why selfish individuals make selfish decisions.

Work with the altruistic donors will continue at Georgetown, led by Abigail Marsh, Brethel-Haurwitz's former doctoral advisor.

"It's hard to get at any pure aspect of human behavior," Brethel-Haurwitz says. "But, once you do, you get closer to a greater understanding of what happens in the brain when people take certain emotion-driven actions."

Explore further: Altruistic acts more common in states with high well-being

More information: Kristin M. Brethel-Haurwitz et al, Extraordinary Altruists Exhibit Enhanced Self–Other Overlap in Neural Responses to Distress, Psychological Science (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0956797618779590

Related Stories

Altruistic acts more common in states with high well-being

January 29, 2014
People are much more likely to decide to donate a kidney to a stranger—an extraordinarily altruistic act—in areas of the United States where levels of well-being are high, according to a new study.

Are you a true altruist or driven by self-interest? Brain scan may give verdict

March 4, 2016
The reason why we help others at a cost to ourselves has long presented a puzzle for scientists. Why do some of us do it more than others? And are we doing it because we are truly moved by the suffering of others or simply ...

Brain structure of kidney donors may make them more altruistic

September 16, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—People who donate kidneys to strangers have significantly different brain structures than those who don't.

Empathy with strangers can be learned

December 21, 2015
We can learn to empathize with strangers. Surprisingly positive experiences with people from another group trigger a learning effect in the brain, which increases empathy. As researchers from the University of Zurich reveal, ...

Why it can make sense to believe in the kindness of strangers

November 13, 2017
Would you risk your life for a total stranger?

Gene variant increases empathy-driven fear in mice

April 20, 2018
Researchers at the Center for Cognition and Sociality, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), have just published as study in Neuron reporting a genetic variant that controls and increases empathy-driven fear in mice. ...

Recommended for you

Precision neuroengineering enables reproduction of complex brain-like functions in vitro

November 14, 2018
One of the most important and surprising traits of the brain is its ability to dynamically reconfigure the connections to process and respond properly to stimuli. Researchers from Tohoku University (Sendai, Japan) and the ...

A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in newborns

November 14, 2018
A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in babies up to two years earlier than current methods.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

New brain imaging research shows that when we expect something to hurt it does, even if the stimulus isn't so painful

November 14, 2018
Expect a shot to hurt and it probably will, even if the needle poke isn't really so painful. Brace for a second shot and you'll likely flinch again, even though—second time around—you should know better.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Sep 12, 2018
Extreme altruism is a clinically significant condition. Giving one's kidney away to a complete stranger comes close to this condition. If they gave all their money away to strangers as well then a psychological assessment is more than warranted.

People donating kidneys should undergo psychological evaluation to ensure that the donation is not part of a self deprecating condition such as may accompany severe depression.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Sep 12, 2018
RKS, psych evaluations are a normal part of the transplant donation process. Whenever it is possible.

I think it would be interesting if research such as in this article. Where compared against how people personally choose to "hero-worship".

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.