The Altruistic Brain – Part 4: Sex, Caregiving and the Virtuous Circle.

Is there a link between sex, generosity and caregiving?

According to Dr. Pfaff in his book The Altruistic Brain,  ( the possible neuronal basis of generosity is that it is intrinsically rewarding. He states: “Neuroscientists in Oregon found that using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the idea of charitable giving lights up the ‘reward center’ in the human forebrain.”

(As a fundraising professional, I’ve spoken to hundreds of donors about the value of compassionate caregiving at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Now I can tell them that they are experiencing “neural and hormonal mechanisms that promote prosocial behaviors” as a motivation for charitable giving!)

Given the premise that our brains evolved to be altruistic, rewards for altruistic behavior would theoretically reinforce that altruism. But why would altruism be rewarding from an evolutionary point of view? Simply put, much of our happiness depends on the quality of our social relationships. We experience pleasure through the well-being of others.

Close, loving relationships foster our physical well-being and are intrinsically rewarding.  Relationships that make us happy lead to altruistic decisions. According to Pfaff, “this decision to be altruistic is rooted in a person’s yearning to be together with another human being, that is, to engage in the type of reciprocal acts that contribute to human happiness.”

The primal reciprocal act leading to human happiness is sex. Big surprise! Sex leads to babies, which results in the profound reciprocal caring of mother-child and father-child. The neural circuits and hormonal stimuli that were evolutionary forerunners for the purpose of mating and taking care of the young lead to altruism and to subtler, more complex human relationships. Relationships build on relationships to form a web of caring.

Altruism and reciprocal acts of kindness can benefit not only a community, but also promote health, because they support friendship and personal connection. Medical and epidemiological studies have shown that having friends prolongs life and increases its quality, as well as improving our psychological well-being.

Being kind prolongs life and makes us happier.

Much has been written about neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change structurally in response to learning and experience.  Dr. Daniel Siegel, Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA , observes that “ We can use [the developing ability to focus on our inner world ] to re-sculpt our neural pathways , stimulating the growth of areas that are critical to mental health.”  Therefore, we can practice being altruistic, and by continued altruistic actions, neural patterns can become automatic. We can visualize a “virtuous circle.” We evolved to be altruistic. Altruistic behaviors are reinforced through our caring relationships that come from reciprocity.

This series of essays was developed in collaboration with Barbara Byrum – my altruistic dream come true!

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

Altruistic Brain – Part 3: How Altruistic Brain Theory Changes our Perceptions of Ourselves and Others.

As we saw in Part 2, empathy is our ability to understand the feelings of another, as if those feelings were our own, and to act accordingly.  Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT) suggests that when we fundamentally understand that our well-being is synonymous with the well-being of others, we can build trust, create mutual benefit, and mend deep social divisions. Trust enables people to succeed at relationship formation, whether it is in a marriage or between communities, or, dare I suggest, between political parties. Reincorporating mutual trust into the nation’s economic and legal institutions is a significant potential benefit in embracing in interdependent view in business and politics.

In his recent book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (, Dan Rather speaks about the importance of empathy from another perspective. Rather, who grew up in poverty during the Great Depression, believes empathy can be a potent force for political and social change and that the suppression or denial of empathy by national leadership can be seen as a deliberate “cynical political calculus” to maintain the status quo of the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.

Rather’s experience deeply formed his understanding of empathy. Living in a rural community where many struggled to live on dirt floors and dirt streets, he saw firsthand what it means to have little income to pay for groceries. He was taught the importance of empathy by his parents. Once his mother gave food to a poor family next door. When he asked his mother if she felt sorry for them, she replied sternly, “We do not feel sorry for them. We know how they feel.”

Rather worries that our nation today suffers from a deficit of empathy. The source of this deficit is the broader divisions in our country, with “rising tribalism” along cultural, ethnic, economic class, and geographic lines. We live in isolated pockets ranging from the ultra-rich to families living in poverty and consequently “We see others but we cannot imagine what their lives are actually like. We don’t even think we should have to bother.”

Our understanding of who we are as human beings is at stake in the tension between our empathic instincts that create trust and the seductions of short-sighted and self-interested strategies deployed in pursuit of some mythological state of safety that excludes the experience of those we fear. Is it too late to establish trust in a national discord that approaches mutual hatred? If so, are we, as Pfaff suggests, at risk of a “perpetual cycle of aggressive, antisocial discourse, that hampers any possibility of compromise.”

We could begin by pushing a reset button. For example, in terms of health care, could agree that everyone wants affordable health care and that mutual cooperation, fueled by empathy, would be consistent with a common good and in the best interest of our country as a whole. We could agree that the means to affordable care might differ drastically – single payer vs. insurance markets. But based on the trust that both sides want what is best for the American people, a compromise might be possible. Indeed, Rather suggests in the title of his book, empathy is patriotic. (

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