How does generosity benefit health? Brain study sheds light

A new study suggests that different types of generosity have different effects on the brain, and that one form, in particular, may reduce stress and anxiety.

It is known that people enjoy being generous.

The "warm glow" effect describes the pleasant sensation we get from helping others, and the theory around it suggests that the main reason behind all acts of generosity is just the fact that they make us feel good.

More recent research has delved deeper into how generosity affects different aspects of our well-being.

One such study showed that generosity does make us happier, and it confirmed this by highlighting the brain regions involved.

Does it matter who we help? Does it make a difference whether we choose to give money to those close to us or whether we give to charity? Can these different forms of generosity improve our health?

A new study — conducted by Tristen K. Inagaki, Ph.D., and Lauren P. Ross, both at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania — called the first form of support "targeted" and the latter "untargeted."

Inagaki and Ross set out to investigate the effects that giving these two forms of support had on the brain, and they published their findings in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.

Generosity and the brain's amygdala

Inagaki and Ross performed two experiments. In the first one, they gave 45 participants a task and told them that they could win a monetary reward either for a person close to them who was in need, for a charity, or for themselves.

After each form of support-giving, the researchers scanned the participants' brains using functional MRI (fMRI). In the scanner, the volunteers performed an "emotional faces task," in which they had to rate emotions based on people's facial expressions.

As expected, both forms of support triggered increased activity in the brain's ventral striatum, which is an area that was previously linked to altruism, and the so-called septal area. Both of these brain regions are associated with parental care in mammals.

Importantly, however, targeted support was also associated with diminished brain activity in the amygdala. This is the almond-shaped brain structure that processes emotions. Under stressful circumstances, it sends "a distress signal to the hypothalamus," telling the brain to enter fight-or-flight mode.

Increased activation of the amygdala has been observed in anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Giving untargeted support did not correlate in any way with activity in the amygdala.

In the second experiment, 382 study participants self-reported on their prosocial, support-giving behaviors. Similarly to the first experiment, the scientists invited the participants to perform an emotional rating task inside the fMRI scanner.

Again, people who said that they were in the habit of giving more targeted support displayed reduced brain activity in the amygdala, while untargeted support had no effect.

Targeted support has 'unique' health benefits

The results suggest that offering targeted support may provide a unique health benefit by reducing anxiety and stress.

"Humans thrive off social connections and benefit when they act in the service of others' well-being," write the authors.

However, the effect of targeted giving on the septal area together with the amygdala "suggests a neural pathway by which giving support ultimately influence health that is specific to targeted forms of support-giving, such as giving to specific people we know are in need."

Inagaki and Ross conclude:

"Giving targeted support to an identifiable individual in need is uniquely associated with reduced amygdala activity thereby contributing to understanding of how and when giving support may lead to health."