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