The Altruistic Brain – Part 2: How Heroism Happens or Are You Kidding Me? Who Does That?

Recently, forty people formed a human chain to reach and rescue a family swept up by a riptide on a Florida beach.  (  I and my teenage son were once caught in a riptide, and I can tell you that it is impossible to swim to shore when the water is moving outward at 8 feet per second. If I had seen the swimmers in Florida, I might have yelled that they should swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip, but I wonder if I would have been so heroic as to volunteer myself to form a chain into the outgoing current, much less volunteer my wife!

In his book, The Altruistic Brain, (  Dr. Pfaff argues that not only are we wired to protect and defend ourselves, our brains have evolved to take care of each other. Altruism is a human instinct wired into our brains that has enabled us to form crucial communal bonds. Perhaps not as interesting as the instinct to have sex – which creates a community in the first place! – altruism offers greater safety and well-being within community.

Stephen Siller ( was an experienced firefighter, who was off-duty and on his way home on 9/11 when the two planes hit the World Trade Towers. He ran through the Brooklyn tunnel carrying sixty pounds of equipment to the Towers, where he died trying to save others. Using the example of Mr. Siller, Dr. Pfaff describes the five step neurochemical processes in the brain that result in an altruistic action.

Step one: Mr. Siller learns of the attack. Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT) tells us that within a few hundredths of a second after we realize need for action, our brain makes the decision for altruistic behavior. (A few hundredths of a second! So we are not weighing pros and cons; we are not imagining a heroic picture on Instagram. We just do it!). The sensory system in the brain will command the muscles to react, and then a corollary discharge  ( predicts how the world will change with our action.

Step two: We visualize the person to whom we will direct the action. In the case of Mr. Siller, he visualized a generic person whom he could rescue. This image may be a conglomerate of possible victims, but Dr. Pfaff states that we must visualize a person before we can act. At this point, we are motivated to act for a person, not because we want to do the moral or right thing.

Step three: Mr. Siller merged the image of the person he wanted to save with an image of himself. This seems extraordinary! How does this occur from a neurochemical point of view? ABT states that there are mirror neurons, which support our empathy toward others. mirror neuron ( fires both when we act and when we observe the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer was himself acting. At this point it is easier for the brain to blur the images than to keep them separate and self and other become merged in the brain.

Step four: Whether consciously or unconsciously, we visualize that the danger to another person is a danger to ourselves.

Step five: Neurons in the frontal cortex turn this into an ethical decision. Dr. Pfaff suggests that these decisions are not based on training, religious or otherwise. There are neurohormonal mechanisms that produce behavior obeying an ethical universal, something very similar to what we call The Golden Rule. We literally are doing to others what we would want done to us.

Dr. Pfaff notes that the theory of merging our identity with that of another is unique to ABT. In fact, it is astounding! He states this theory with the same scientific objectivity and lack of emotion as if he were stating that an image perceived by the eye is upside down on the retina.

Personally, I think Dr. Pfaff needs to insert little emoticons jumping for joy and doing backflips. This merging of self and other is a revolutionary idea coming from neuroscience. We are interconnected and interdependent. My well-being depends on your well-being. Now what? Stay tuned for Part 3.

Brad Byrum, MA
MFT Intern
 Supervised by Steven Dallmann MFT License #51178

The Altruistic Brain – Part 1: The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism or You May Not be as Selfish as You Imagine


Why do people spontaneously risk their lives for strangers? In New York City, Wesley Autry jumped in front of a train to rescue a man who had fallen on the tracks. (  Why the hell did he do that? Based on the prevailing views of evolutionary biology, that was a really stupid thing to do because it might have gotten him expelled from the gene pool. Seriously, why would a person perform an act that benefits another, but could cause harm to himself? From an evolutionary point of view, aren’t we genetically programmed to ensure only our survival?

In his book, The Altruistic Brain, Dr. Pfaff, a neuroscientist, puts forward the Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT). (  This theory may seem radical, especially in the light of the current thinking of evolutionary biology. Is it possible that we could be motivated for the sake of goodness alone? Neuroscience starts from the premise that all our social behaviors are products of how our brains evolved. Pfaff argues that our brains evolved in such a way that altruism may be our default response, not an exception to the rule of selfishness, and that our actions can be good, with no ulterior motive. Goodness for the sake of goodness. According to ABT, and based on the recent findings of neuroscience, we are inherently good. We are fundamentally benevolent!

The operative assumption of evolutionary biology is that selfishness is a primary survival mechanism. “The survival of the fittest.” Aggression, anger and defensiveness are seen as default settings for survival. Consequently, many of us live with a psychic tension between who we feel we want to be and what evolutionary theory says we are. People doubt their own inherent goodness, because they look within themselves and doubt the purity of their own motives. (Well, at least this person does.)

In his book, Pfaff argues that, in fact, our brains are not aggression machines but instead are wired to propel us toward empathic behavior and feelings, leading to altruistic behaviors. He is not talking about heroic altruism, such as in the unusual action of jumping in front of a train. He is focused on everyday kindness and decency. According to him, these everyday acts of kindness make our lives livable. He argues that our brains evolved to make us care for each other because it is a superior survival mechanism.

An important implication of ABT is in terms of our relationships. Research has shown that through empathy we can share in and be affected by the emotional state of another. Empathy requires an emotional and cognitive connection. Pfaff suggests that this ability to connect and empathize with another is innate in brain circuitry.

One of the most compelling implications of ABT is that it can shift our working assumptions about human nature and our own sense of ourselves in ways that open us to new possibilities for how we live our lives. What might happen if we began to think and act as if we were inherently good? Is it possible that some deeper levels of soul healing can happen when we begin to relate to ourselves and to each other as essentially good and kind? And why would our brains evolve in this way? More on that in Part 2.

Brad Byrum, MA
MFT Intern
Supervised by Steven Dallmann MFT License #51178