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