It really is better to give than to receive. This is the theory being explored by a group of life scientists at UCLA's Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center.
For their research, the scientists studied 20 heterosexual couples in good, stable relationships. The 20 women in the couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans while their boyfriends were just outside the scanner receiving painful electric shocks. At times, the women could provide support by holding the arm of their boyfriends, while at other times, they had to watch their boyfriends receive shocks without being able to provide support (each woman instead held a squeeze-ball). At still other times, the boyfriends did not receive a shock, and the women could either touch or not touch them.
So what's happening inside your head? The scientists discovered that when women gave support to their boyfriends in pain, the women showed increased activity in reward-related regions of the brain, including the ventral striatum and septal area. In addition, the more reward-related neural activity these women showed, the more connected they reported feeling with their boyfriends while providing support. Under conditions in which no support was provided, these regions showed decreased activity.
Senior study author and UCLA professor-Naomi Eisenberger explains; "The ventral striatum is the region of the brain that is typically active in response to simple rewards like chocolate, sex, and money. The fact that support-giving also activates this region suggest that support-giving may be processed by the brain as a basic type of rewarding experience. "
The findings suggests that support-giving may have stress-reducing efforts for the person who provides the support.
According to Eisenberger, the benefits of providing support might also apply when a loved one is experiencing a stressful event, including an emotionally painful event. "Giving support to those we are close to, such as family members or children, may increase their likelihood of survival and, therefore, the likelihood that our genes will get passed on," she said. "Because of the importance of support-giving for the survival of our species, it is possible that over the course of our evolutionary history, support-giving may have become psychologically rewarding to ensure that this behavior persisted."
Currently, the life scientists are conducting further research on how giving to others may reduce our stress responses and ultimately contribute to better health.
Details of the study are published in the online edition of Psychosomatic Medicine, a peer-reviewed health psychology journal.