People who show concern for others and their wellbeing ‘experience less pain’ than those who aren’t as selfless, a new study finds
- Researchers studied over 280 brains and found a link between altruism and pain
- They found that even cancer patients engaging in altruism felt reduced pain
- The Chinese team say altruism has been valued by humanity since prehistory
People who show concern for others and take an interest in their wellbeing experience less pain than those that aren’t as nice, researchers claim.
Scientists at Peking University in China scanned the brains of more than 280 people as part of two studies into altruistic behaviour and pain levels.
They found that the part of the brain that is linked to reduced levels of pain, is also linked to selfless behaviour.
Experts have pondered why people would help others when there was no obvious benefit to themselves for centuries, said lead researcher Yilu Wang.
The Peking team found that in physically threatening situations acting altruistically can relieve painful feelings in the person offering help.
People who show concern for others and take an interest in their wellbeing experience less pain than those that aren’t as nice, researchers claim. Stock image
‘We examine how altruistic behaviours may influence the performers’ instant sensation in unpleasant situations’, said Dr Wang from Peking University.
‘We find consistent behavioural and neural evidence that in physically threatening situations acting altruistically can relieve painful feelings in human performers.’
The researchers say that altruistic behaviour ‘has been cherished in human society since prehistoric times’ and so wanted to find out what benefit was to be gained by people who acted selflessly compared to the more selfish.
‘It enable group members to collectively survive various crises, such as food shortages and natural disasters’, they wrote in the research paper.
‘However, engaging in altruistic behaviours is costly for the performers themselves; it involves giving away one’s own resources and thus reduces the performers’ fitness relative to selfish others.’
The findings will help better understanding the processes behind human social behaviour and pain management, the team claim.
The study found that acting altruistically relieved not only acutely induced physical pain among healthy adults but also chronic pain among cancer patients.
Using functional MRI scans they found that when someone performed an altruistic acts the pain regions of the brain were reduced during a painful shock compared to when someone wasn’t performing an altruistic act.
‘Our findings suggest that incurring personal costs to help others may buffer the performers from unpleasant conditions’, Dr Wang said.
The team say that empirical evidence shows that human altruistic tendencies are actually enhanced in times of crisis, such as immediately after a strong earthquake.
The researchers say that altruistic behaviour ‘has been cherished in human society since prehistoric times’ and so wanted to find out what benefit was to be gained by people who acted selflessly compared to the more selfish. Stock image
‘The prevalence of altruism under life-threatening circumstances raises an important yet poorly understood question: What is happening within the individual at the time when he or she helps’, said Dr Wang.
Most physically threatening situations are accompanied by actual or potential tissue damage, which is often associated with the experience of pain, the researchers say.
‘Although giving time, money, or social support incurs tangible loss, it also brings about intangible gains to the performers, such as enhanced positive affect, increased self-esteem, and less depression.
‘In addition, people relate altruistic acts to the experience of meaning in life, that is, seeing one’s life and existence as having value, purpose, and direction.’
They said that instead of regarding altruistic behaviour as the cause of inevitable loss that has to be incured to improve others’ welfare, their results suggest that performing altruistically may boost experiences.
‘It can help them to neutralize perceived unpleasantness (e.g., relieving the physical pain) in adverse situations.’
The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
WHAT IS SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE?
Social intelligence is the ability to manage complex social situations through empathy and the ability to know oneself and others.
It includes characteristics such as taking in others’ perspectives, being adaptable, managing impressions of oneself and adhering to established social norms.
Social intelligence defines our ability to take on complex socialisation, including politics, romance, family relationships, arguments, collaboration and altruism.
While ‘traditional’ intelligence is the ability to acquire knowledge and skill, and is largely determined at birth, experts say that social intelligence is a mostly learned skill built through experience.