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Neuroscience: The shocking truth? – people benefit from caring

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From “‘Tis Better to Give Than to Receive?’ Life Scientists Find That Giving Support Offers Health Benefits — To the Giver” (ScienceDaily, Nov. 9, 2011) , we learn:

Providing support to a loved one offers benefits to the giver, not just the recipient, a new brain-imaging study by UCLA life scientists reveals.

Eisenberger and UCLA psychology graduate student Tristen Inagaki studied 20 young heterosexual couples in good relationships at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. The 20 women in the couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans while their boyfriends were just outside the scanner receiving painful electric shocks. At times, the women could provide support by holding the arm of their boyfriends, while at other times, they had to watch their boyfriends receive shocks without being able to provide support (each woman instead held a squeeze-ball). At still other times, the boyfriends did not receive a shock, and the women could either touch or not touch them.

The life scientists found that when women gave support to their boyfriends in pain, the women showed increased activity in reward-related regions of the brain, including the ventral striatum and septal area. In addition, the more reward-related neural activity these women showed, the more connected they reported feeling with their boyfriends while providing support. Under conditions in which no support was provided, these regions showed decreased activity.

This study provides considerable support for Raymond Tallis’s criticism of neuromania and Gazzaniga’s caution.

No doubt the finding is correct, as it accords with many conventional sources of information, but eccentric/objectionable methods create legitimate doubt.

Conventional sources of information suggest: Concern for others’ pain distracts you from yours. (You sure forget your sore ankle when your neighbour loses a leg on the job!) Helping others makes you feel good, and successfully helping others reduces your own sense of helplessness. An so forth. All these propositions are testable, including brain imaging tests, without any bizarre setups, because they are very common.

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