What makes one man a Bill Gates, giving away billions of dollars for charitable causes and another an Ebeneezer Scrooge, preferring to put the poor away in work houses and away from him? Noted neurologist Dr. Jorge Moll, desired to find out. He and a team that also included Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza and Jordan Grafman, published in 2006 the results of a study they titled “Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Dr. Moll, currently President of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education, and his team peered more deeply into what makes humans help each other, even when there are no obvious benefits to do so; i.e. when we give to people with no genetic consanguinity and help people who will likely never be able to repay the kindness. Dr. Moll used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and study participants’ brains were imaged while they donated anonymously to various charities related to major social causes. Interestingly, the brains mesolimbic reward system activates in response to making a donation just as it does when a participant receives money for making the donation.
Jorge Moll, who graduated from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and received his PhD in Experimental Pathophysiology from Sao Paulo University, also found that different areas of the brain are engaged specifically when altruism drives the choice to give, versus being inspired by a selfish motive. A variety of causes were offered for donation, so participants could find a social problem they were comfortable with, and the same brain triggers were observed regardless of which cause was chosen or whether a monetary reward was anticipated, although the intensity of the response varied.
In summary, Homo sapiens has evolved to be an altruistic species, in general, but we’re not perfect at it yet. Dr. Jorge Moll also found that morality did factor into participants’ decisions. Morality can encourage us to help each other, but it can also foment hostility and stress, as individuals or groups confront each other. These negative reactions seem to involve the lateral orbitofrontal cortex area of the brain, and responses include disgust and anger.
Dr. Moll and his colleagues’ observations all lead to the conclusion that Homo sapiens has evolved to be helpful, as have other species that have been seen to care for their ill or elderly. Giving to other people in need actually triggers the areas of the brain that glow in response to physical pleasures like eating or sex, much as those areas light up when seeing a loved partner. In other words, we don’t give until it hurts; we give because it feels good.