The human brain is a remarkably complex system of matter, nerves, cells, neurons, electrical impulses, reward centers, subconscious drives and more all working together to keep your heart beating, your eyes blinking and your mind abuzz.
The human brain is up to a lot more than you realize, and is often taken for granted, and one of the most fascinating areas this is true is in the seemingly innocuous arena of charitable giving.
Scientists have often felt that human beings were biologically hard-wired to be selfish in order to ensure their own individual survival, but recent research suggests that our brains believe otherwise. From the allure of dopamine to the role of empathy, here is a closer look at your brain on giving, and the ways in which giving is good for us.
The Role of Dopamine
Whether you donate a car or boat to your favorite charity or you volunteer two days a week to read to seniors at your local nursing home, your brain is active in ways that reach far beyond handing over the keys or keeping track of the page you’re on. Certain activities trigger a release of a chemical called dopamine in the human brain. Connected to the pleasure and reward centers of the human brain, a person in the throes of dopamine feels really good. Eating, drinking, sex, exercise and gambling can all cause our brains to release a flood of dopamine, and studies have shown that charitable giving can, too.
Charitable giving, because of dopamine, results in a pleasurable experience for the giver, but the reasons for that pleasurable experience aren’t exactly straightforward. Altruistic pleasure may be one reason why the human brain associates giving to others with rewards and pleasure. In other words, people give to charities, because the act of providing a public good results in feelings that are pleasurable. This theory suggests that it’s the benefit offered and not the act of giving that creates the positive feelings, which implies that even taxes — because they contribute to education, roads and other commonly understood-as-good public services — should result in a feeling of pleasure.
On the opposite side of the altruistic pleasure theory is the theory of internal pleasure. Known as providing a “warm glow,” proponents of this idea believe that the pleasure centers of the brain are triggered because people enjoy the experience of exercising their own individual choice and agency in their decision to be generous. The positive feelings associated with giving come from choosing the charities that align with each person’s own ideal view of the world.
The Pleasure of Others’ Approval
Another theory about why giving feels so good is the assumption that charitable giving elevates our status in other people’s eyes. It isn’t the giving or the result of giving that releases the dopamine, but the anticipation and experience of how others view our generosity in a positive light that does. In other words, being well-esteemed — and knowing it — is what feels good.
In addition to pleasure, empathy also plays a major role in charitable giving. The more a person connects on an empathetic and emotional level with an individual story, the more likely that person is to give of her money or time to help. The human brain is hardwired to feel the effects of others’ pain and joy deeply.
Scientists believe that the biological basis for the empathy we feel for those who are most important in our lives is in many ways due to the fact that we associate those people with ourselves. Instead of understanding the self as singular and alone, empathy creates a condition in which our partners, children, parents and friends are integrated into our self-understanding. We understand them as part of us. When it comes to giving, empathy sees to it that some stories, people and animals feel too linked up with our own wellbeing to avoid helping.
Why people give to the charities is as complicated as the human brain is. From the activation of pleasure and reward centers to the various ways in which we experience pleasure and why, the good news is that the human brain is a stalwart partner in making us all a bit more generous. Regardless of the reasons why, the human brain clearly sees giving as something worth our time and energy.