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What is the neural mechanism behind helping someone at your own cost?

Using a unique setup, researchers from the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience have researched the neural mechanism behind a universal dilemma: deciding whether to help someone else even when it involves a personal sacrifice.

We often have opportunities to give up something we care about to help others. What brain mechanisms help us make those decisions, and why do some people help more than others?

Over the years, philosophers and scientists have suggested that the extent to which a person empathizes with the distress of others influences their willingness to help.

To explore this hypothesis experimentally, Kalliopi Ioumpa and Selene Gallo, under the supervision of Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola, investigated pro-social behaviour—voluntary behaviour intended to benefit others—in self-reported mirror-pain synaesthetes. Mirror-pain synaesthetes report feeling pain on their own body whenever they’re witnessing pain on someone else. If sharing the pain of others is indeed a key motivator to help others, these individuals should be particularly generous.

“To better understand why some people help more than others, in the past, our lab had performed experiments with participants that are at the lower extreme of empathy, including individuals with psychopathy. This time, we wanted to look at the opposite extreme: people that feel the pain of others so much more, that it feels like the pain is on their own body” explained Christian Keysers. “In the literature, there was some notion that these participants feel such a localized pain when witnessing that of others, because their brain activated somatosensory cortices – regions normally only involved in the sense of touch on your own body. Would that influence their donations?”.

What is the neural mechanism behind helping someone at your own cost?

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