Under the Hood

Helping Others Is Good For You, Especially When Your Target Is Specific

Helping others activates the brain regions involved in parental care, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh. Observed brain activity also found that targeting our support to specific people (whom we know to be in need) could be uniquely beneficial for our health.

The study titled "Neural Correlates of Giving Social Support: Differences between Giving Targeted versus Untargeted Support" was recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.

It is known that pro-social behavior in the form of helping others can have a positive effect on the giver, not just the receiver. "Giving support contributes to the link between social ties and health, however, the neural mechanisms are not known," the authors wrote.

The aim of the new study was to understand if the target of our support also makes a difference in how our brains respond. That is, whether we help out a specific individual or offer our support in a more "untargeted" manner such as donating to charity. The research team, comprising of Tristen K. Inagaki and Lauren P. Ross, conducted a pair of experiments to find out.

In the first experiment, 45 individuals were given the chance to win rewards for one of the following — someone close to them who needed money (targeted support), for charity (untargeted support), or for themselves. Here, participants felt more socially connected and also believed their efforts were more effective when giving targeted social support.

Functional MRI scanning was also used to observe regions of the brain in participants. Regardless of whether it was targeted or untargeted, giving support was linked to greater activity in the ventral striatum (VS) and septal area (SA) i.e. regions linked to parental care behaviors in animals. This higher activation of the SA during targeted support was also associated with lower activity in the amygdala, a tiny structure in the brain which has been linked to fear and stress responses.

In the second experiment, the team analyzed self-reported data from 382 participants about their behavior in giving targeted and untargeted support. Again, the fMRI revealed lower activity in the amygdala of those who reported more targeted forms of support.

"Humans thrive off social connections and benefit when they act in the service of others' well-being," the authors stated. The results, according to them, highlight the relevant neural pathways to show how giving targeted support could be uniquely beneficial.

But since the study was observational, the researchers could not prove cause-and-effect. Moreover, there may be a few exceptions where targeted social support is not beneficial such as a person who has to take care of an ill family member for a long period. Studies have found that prolonged caregiving could sometimes result in chronic stress, higher risk of depression, and other detrimental effects on health.