The Neurobiological Basis of Thanksgiving, or Neuroscience of Giving and Receiving

First published in NAAP News (Fall 2011 issue):

by Inna Rozentsvit

“… (G)iving liberates the soul of the giver.” Maya Angelou

“Generosity is not giving me that which I need more than you do, but it is giving me that which you need more than I do.” Khalil Gibran

“Any act that I do for myself will take me to mortality and any small action that I do for others would take me to immortality.” Dr. Gururaj Karajagi

Were they special, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Princess Diana? Yes! They had giving hearts and generous souls. But what particular structure or ingredient of these hearts and souls would determine their superb giving abilities? Recent discoveries in neurobiology provide some answers: human brains (not hearts) are hard-wired to receive more pleasure from giving than receiving.

With the rise of neurobiology, functional MRI (fMRI) machines and their masters have become the heroes of our times. These fMRIs use a special (also safe and non-invasive) blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) imaging signal to provide a high-resolution report about specific and dynamic brain activities. The technique enables neuroscientists to look inside the normally functioning (i.e., not drugged or operated on) and interacting brain. Because of the fMRI-based neurobio-revolution, we know that “medial prefrontal regions … are considered essential for mental state attribution and self-reflection, [while] … anterior temporal lobe represents abstract social semantic knowledge; [and] only activity in the superior anterior temporal cortex … correlates with the richness of detail with which social concepts describe social behavior” (Zahn et al., 2007).

To summarize, fMRI technology helps us to understand our Selves, our behaviors, emotions, and social constructs. It has helped me, personally, to do so. During conversations with colleagues, I had proposed that giving is more pleasurable than receiving, and that giving-over-receiving is very natural to human beings. I was then “diagnosed” as being a “masochist,” a “pleaser,” or even having an “altruistic personality disorder.” None of these felt like an “aha” moment, but there was no scientific proof of my propositions at that time, until recently. Dr. Jordan Grafman and his colleagues from the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) used fMRIs on volunteers who played computer games involving receiving and giving, and earning money for real-life charities while doing so. When people received money, dopamine-producing areas were activated (the same as in drug-, food-, and love-craving situations), and this was expected. Some unexpected findings were that the “mesolimbic reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained. … Medial orbitofrontal-subgenual and lateral orbitofrontal areas, which also play key roles in more primitive [i.e., hard-wired] mechanisms of social attachment and aversion, specifically mediate decisions to donate or to oppose societal causes” (Moll et al., 2006). Dr. Grafman found that even when altruistic choices are made over selfish ones, more anterior prefrontal cortex areas are recruited; meaning that we perceive more reward when we give than when we receive! This is all despite all our previous assumptions about evolutionary “selective advantages of selfish traits” (Baschetti, 2007). Besides, giving activates some areas of the brain which receiving does not – areas of the “cuddle” hormone oxytocin, which is released when we are feeling attachment; it is also called a “hormone of trust.”

Neuroscientists from NINDS also discovered that when people were making decisions about high-cost donations, their prefrontal cortex area (which is also involved in decision-making and in moral reasoning) was activated. Since this area is not developed as much in other species, neuroscientists found this charitable brain activity to be specific to humans. Since the volunteers made all donations anonymously, the factors of mere reciprocity, as well as expectation or seeking approval or recognition, were ruled out. Their brains registered pleasure merely from the act of donation. Dr. Grafman concluded also that charitable behavior is a learned one, as it characterizes more evolved brain area (cortex), and this is why children (with their still-evolving brains) would usually choose receiving over giving (NINDS, 2006).

Another piece of valuable information came from the fMRI group at Duke Universityposterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), known to respond to goal-directed actions of others, is activated in the brains of people making charitable donations, which meant that “altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency” (Tankersley et al., 2007). The pSTC area was activated the most when the volunteers were involved in “watching” sessions, where the charities were receiving the winnings (it was mostly true for those who do charitable work in real life). Thus, Dr. Scott Huettel from Duke University concluded that altruism might have evolved from a low-level brain task of attributing what’s happening to others, and from the perception of goals and intentions of others (Stimson, 2007).

The neurobiology of giving has just started to gain recognition, and I believe that we will see more of it in the years to come. So I am joining Dr. Grafman in the conclusion that giving and donating is “only going to support our own brain’s evolution. It’s good for the species – donate.”

“Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion. Hope without thankfulness is lacking in fine perception. Faith without thankfulness lacks strength and fortitude. 
Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.” — John Henry Jowett