Dr. Abigail Marsh
The altruistic brain
Every year in the United States, over 100 Americans donate one of their own kidneys to a stranger. Dozens more receive the Carnegie Medal for heroism for rescuing strangers from danger. The question is: why? What drives people to take risks and make sacrifices to help strangers? Our work includes behavioral and brain imaging research aimed at understanding the roots of extraordinary altruism. Results of our research suggest that extraordinary altruists possess neural and cognitive characteristics that predispose them to high levels of care and compassion. In terms of their brain structure and function, they look the opposite of highly callous individuals (such as psychopaths). They also show unusually strong connections between brain areas that support parental care. These variations may increase altruists’ capacity for empathic responding and bias them toward protective responses to others’ distress. Together, these results suggest that extraordinary altruism may result from variations in established neural and cognitive phenomena that support social and emotional responsiveness. They also suggest that human altruism may be subserved by ancient neural systems that support parental and alloparental care.