Brain Health

Exploring the Neuroscience of Altruism

I want to start this article by expressing my gratitude to the many friends, family, and mentors that have influenced me during my life. I appreciate the kindness, compassion, and support through the times that I needed it.

I have sensed the generous spirits of others as they lend me their ears and provide me their heartfelt advice. It almost felt as if they shared packets of energy toward my direction. I sensed the presence of healing.

It got me thinking about altruism, compassion, and empathy. Are the brain’s neural synapses programmed for altruism? Which areas are active in the brain during social interactions? How does empathy affect health?

Pay it Forward and Altruism.

Most of us have seen videos of customers waiting in line at a coffee shop informing the cashier that they will pay for the next person in line’s coffee. People have developed projects to assist others by paying more considerable sums, like debt, medical bills, or offer to pay for someone’s schooling. It strikes a chord in human beings to see these random acts of kindness.

The “pay it forward” movement likely originated thousands of years before Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay it Forward (1999). One could imagine several benefits of this transaction, whether to begin a barter system or as a good deed to strengthen trust. A similar gesture is mentioned in the Bible as Jesus tells the Parable of the Creditor and Two Debtors, where the creditor forgave the debts of two people who owed money to him.

More recently, Benjamin Franklin shared a “pay it forward” concept to a friend and referred to the action as a “trick (of mine) for doing a deal of good with a little money.” He wrote:

“I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you [..] meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him, enjoining him to discharge the debt by a like operation.”

Benjamin franklin

Altruism and empathy are interrelated terms. Merriam Webster defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” A second definition relates to behavior “by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but benefits others of its species. These behaviors are rooted in empathy, defined as the ability to understand and imagine another’s feelings. Altruism is the social process, and empathy is its fuel.

Acts of kindness are not exclusive to human beings. Other mammals perform them. Although there is some preference for animals from the same kin, observations confirm that behavior can include unrelated groups and even different species.

  • A pod of dolphins puts their lives at risk when it encircles to protect a surfer surrounded by sharks off the coast of California.
  • A gorilla named Binti Jua rescued a 3-year-old boy who fell into an Illinois zoo gorilla exhibit, delivering him over to zookeepers.

In both situations, animals exhibited a sense of awareness to an imperiled animal (human) and made an effort to rescue them, even though it came with risks. Were these behaviors instinctive?

Reciprocal Altruism through Grooming in Monkeys
Photo by Pixabay on

The Neuroscience of Altruism

Humans, in particular, are capable of performing incredible feats for the benefit of fellow human beings.

The brain functioning in the setting of service to others is not without conjecture. MRI scans can allow us to determine the structure. The so-called “Functional” MRI (fMRI) studies can provide a glimpse into brain activity with an increased resolution (less than 1-millimeter structures). However, they cannot wholly construct the physiologic underpinnings of altruism.

Neuroscientists are aware of the active centers of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, from autopsy studies. Greater blood flow can on functional MRI studies occurs with an increased neurotransmitter activity related to the study behavior; Scientists can make inferences on which areas of the brain control the respective responses. Here is a link to the basics of brain imaging.

Where is the most significant activity in the brain with altruistic behaviors? Studies have shown that areas of the limbic system light up. These are the same areas as the pleasure and rewards pathways, including the nucleus accumbens (NCC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) (1). Researchers identified areas of the brain associated with pleasure in participants given $100 to donate or keep. But the activity was highest in those that donated their money.

Another active area in the brain with altruism is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which involves integrating self and other emotional regulation. This center also impacts one’s ability to predict another’s point of view, referred to as the Theory of Mind. Attached to this may be societal norms that lead individuals to conform to civic duty and generosity (2)

Which neurotransmitters are involved in altruism?

  • Oxytocin correlates with pro-social behaviors such as trust, cooperation, and empathy. It is a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland. It has several functions in childbirth, preparing the cervix for dilation, breastfeeding for milk ejection, and male and female sexual behavior and orgasm. Other than these properties, it is an essential hormone for bonding, social connection, and stress reduction. It counteracts cortisol, a stress hormone, and contributes to improved wound healing (3). Cortisol is part of the fight-or-flight response (see here).
  • Dopamine is likely responsible for altruistic behavior. It is a neurotransmitter associated with movement, rewards, and meeting needs. Dopamine may facilitate the repetition of behavior, including pro-social activities. I like to call this neurotransmitter “on the fence,” because it is more important to call the body to an action, e.g., a craving, a reinforcement of an action, and/or movement toward a stimulus, rather than being associated with it pleasure. The dopaminergic pathways are the same centers for pain, joy, and addictions. Consider the drive to altruism reinforced by the brain, likely after a positive response (4).
  • Serotonin relates to the feeling of pleasure. There are physical properties of serotonin activity, including in the cardiovascular and digestive systems. Some studies using serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) suggested that higher serotonin in neural synapses led to pro-social behavior (5).

The Health Benefits of Altruism

Altruistic behavior not only benefits the community as a whole, but it can also be beneficial to an individual’s mental and physical health. Assisting others triggers a kind of “helper’s high.” An interesting commonality of the neurotransmitters seen in altruism is that they are required both in normal physiologic functioning of the body and in pro-social behaviors.

Benefits of Altruism

Improved Health

Stress Reduction

Improved Happiness and Satisfaction

Improved Community Cohesion and Social Support systems

smiling crop woman with crossed hands
Photo by Puwadon Sang-ngern on

When someone reaches out to touch another person in the correct social context, both sender and receiver receive an oxytocin boost. If the contact is not (interpreted) appropriate, there may be a defensive or aggressive response. When the touch is well-received, dopamine release follows and reinforces future behaviors.

Perhaps, altruism may be a cognitive extension of the physical properties of relationships with a more abstract notion of kin. The empathic human being extends outside of themselves and provides what they would think may be beneficial to others. This gesture extends outside of person, family, community, species, and any other construct.

Altruism sends “packets of energy” contained in monetary or object donations, services, and goodwill to others. The compassion extends from one person to another living organism outside of their immediate circle.

Can altruism be contagious? The duality of benefit in giver and receiver in this transaction supports why it can be contagious and propagative.

Pay it forward for your optimal health and for the benefit of the community’s health!


  1. Filkowski M, Cochran RN, Haas Brian. Altruistic behavior: mapping responses in the brain. Neurosci Neuroecon. 2016; 5: 65-75. DOI: 10.2147/NAN.S87718. Accessed 7/19/2021.
  2. Nook E, Ong D, Morelli S, et. al. Prosocial Conformity: Pro-social Norms Generalize Across Behavior and Empathy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. May 2016. Accessed 7/19/2021.
  3. Magon N, Kalra S. The orgasmic history of oxytocin: Love, lust, and labor. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Sept; 15(Suppl3): S156-S161. DOI: 10.4103/2230-8210.84851. Accessed 7/19/2021.
  4. Schultz W. Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons. J Neurophysiol. 1998. Jul; 80(1): 1-27. DOI: 10.1152/jn.1998.80.1.1. Accessed 7/19/2021.
  5. Crockett M, Clark L, Hauser M, Robbins T. Serotonin selectively influences moral judgment and behavior through effects on harm aversion. PNAS. Oct 5, 2010: vol 107(40): 17433-17438. PDF. Accessed 7/19/2021.


Breuning L. The Selfishness of Altruism. April 28,2016. Accessed 7/19/2021. Link.

Check out the Pay It Forward Foundation

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