How witnessing kindness and compassion shows up in your brain

Hmmm. What if we did the same study with sociopaths — top banksters, CEOs, some politicians, etc. — would they also be moved emotionally? Probably not. That’s what it means to be a sociopath: no empathy. But: would their brains be moved but not their minds? Or is that even possible, that level of disconnect between body and mind. Probably!

How Our Bodies React to Seeing Goodness

June 11, 2015

by Jill Suttie


A new study maps what happens in our bodies and brains when we witness acts of kindness and compassion.

I don’t know about you, but no matter how many times I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I am moved to tears. Something about that moment when George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is rescued from financial and emotional ruin by the generosity of his friends gets to me, making me feel deeply moved and hopeful about our capacity for human goodness.

Now a new study in Biological Psychology sheds some light on what’s going on in your body and brain during elevation, and why it has a distinct role to play in our human interactions.

In this study, 104 college students watched a couple of videos depicting either heroic, compassionate acts or just amusing situations, while researchers took measurements of their heart rate and medial prefrontal cortex activity. Activity in the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with higher-level cognitive process, such as empathy and “theory of mind” – our ability to predict social behavior – and is thought to be involved in experiences of moral elevation.

The researchers also measured respiratory sinus arrhythmia, an indicator of activity in the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS (our calming, self-soothing system), while heart rate indicates activity in the sympathetic nervous system or SNS (our arousal, “fight or flight” system). Because PNS activity is associated with warm feelings towards others and bonding behavior, the researchers expected activation in the PNS during moral elevation. Their results showed a different pattern: During peak emotional points in the videos, participants who watched the elevation-inspiring videos experienced dual activation—increases in both the PNS and the SNS – while those watching the merely amusing videos did not experience either.

This dual activation during elevation surprised Sarina Saturn, a researcher at the Oregon State University and one of the authors in the study. “This is a really uncommon pattern, where you see both of these systems recruited for one emotion,” says Saturn, a former Hornaday Postdoctoral Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center.

After looking into the literature further, she says, the findings began to make sense. Dual activation of the PNS and SNS occurs in situations that involve attending to others in a prosocial way while also needing to stay alert and aroused, such as during parenting and sexual activity. Moral elevation must involve a similar pattern, which makes some sense: To see a compassionate act, we must witness suffering, and that’s stressful. However, once we see the suffering alleviated through an altruistic act, it calms our heart (through the PNS), allowing us to get past the stress and give us that pleasant, warm glow feeling. This feeling is probably what calms our hearts enough to give us the motivation to “pay it forward” by acting altruistically in the future.

“It’s kind of cool to see that what’s happening in your body is an impetus to prosociality and inspires people to give and be kind,” says Saturn. “I think we’ve known that anecdotally; but now it’s great to see what’s actually happening in the body and the brain.”


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