Jennifer Baumgartner

Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D.

The Psychology of Dress

This is Your Brain on Christmas: The Psychology of Altruism

Giving to others is a neurological event!

Posted Dec 15, 2011

Whether or not you practice Christianity, Christmas can be a powerful call to action and a catalyst for change. Although, the core of this holiday for Christians is the birth of Christ, Christmas is also a universal time of helping others, making connections, improving ourselves, and embodying peace...which all of us can celebrate.

At Christmas, Christians double their efforts to give to those in need, donating food, clothing, and toys. Treating others the way we would like to be treated is primary, but the Golden Rule is also the backbone of almost all other religious teachings and societal structures. So do we give because we are told to do so? Because we feel guilty about our own abundance? Maybe one day we hope someone will give to us? Or do we give because "the spirit moves us" to do so?

Certain factors may increase our likelihood to act on behalf of others. If an individual is faced with an opportunity for altruism, he or she is more likely to help when acting alone than if he or she were in a group setting. In 1987 Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki found that people are more likely to help when they are in a positive mood than negative one, especially if acting "good" does not ruin the mood. Other studies have found that if we believe that the person we are helping had no hand in his predicament, we are more likely to help.  (Reference

The motivation and continuation of altruism is also rooted in psychological and physiological responses to helping others. When we help others we report increases in positive emotions. Our subjective experiences of these emotions reduce our stress, increase the strength of our immunity, and increase our longevity. In separate studies, reported on by bioethics professor Dr. Stephen Post in an interview with WebMD, scientists found that antibody levels immediately increased and were sustained after witnessing generous acts or engaging in them.  (Reference

The physiological inner workings of altruism may begin in what Dr. Stephen Post, who headed studies funded through The Institute on Research on Unlimited Love, refers to as the compassion-altruism axis that is activated during emotional expressions of empathy and compassion associated with the act of giving, specifically during direct interactions with others. Additionally, the hormone oxytocin, associated with the bonding activities between mothers and children and romantic partners, are also released in those who are generous towards others. The oxytocin release is not only associated with relieving someone else's stress through our altruistic behaviors but may also relieve our own stress.                                                                                                 (Reference

Our give-back behaviors may also be connected to the reward circuitry of our brain, which releases dopamine and endorphins. Researchers have examined the report of "helper's high" that givers often experience after working for the benefit of another. This release not only makes us feel better because it immediately reduces our stress, but may reinforce our desire to be "rewarded" again and therefore increase our generosity in the future. If giving a sandwich to a friend felt good yesterday, reading to your little brother today will most likely feel just as good do it!             (Reference

When we experience compassion and empathy those emotions are rooted in neurological responses, but the call to action is also part of this experience.  Neuroscience researcher Dr. Richard Davidson examined MRI scans of Buddhist monks meditating on compassion. Their scans revealed that areas of the brain associated with planning action were activated. When we are faced with a situation that requires our assistance our brains not only experience compassion but the desire to act on that compassion. We are literally moved to action by our brain.                (Reference

During this time of year, we will be bombarded with physical strain, financial pressures, family drama, and personal stress, but at the heart of this unnecessary flurry is the quiet and steady call to help those in need. It is here where you will find true fulfillment, the meaning of the season...and the stimulation your neurons crave!