Get when you give

When you offer someone you love support, you are not thinking about what it will do for you. Giving support is an altruistic act that in many ways is one of the high points of the human experience. Without diminishing the generosity of the supportive act, new research has shown however, that giving to another not only benefits that other person; it benefits you as well.

This was shown in tests done on young heterosexual couples who were happy in their relationships. This was one of those studies in which you were decidedly happy if you were the female. The women had magnetic resonance images of their brain function taken while the men sat nearby and were given electric shocks. How this relates to the natural order of things will not be speculated on here.

Sometimes the women were allowed to hold the arm or hand of their boyfriend to provide support when they received the shocks. At other times though, the women had to watch their man being shocked without being able to provide physical support. On these occasions the women were given a stress ball instead, and by all reports the balls appreciated the contact. There was also a third circumstance where the men were not shocked and the women were free to either touch or not touch them.

Yes, before you ask, the experimenter was a woman.

What the scans of the women’s brains showed was that when they were able to show support for their boyfriends who were in pain, there was increased activity in the ventral striatum and septal areas of the brain; both areas involved in perceiving reward. Additionally, the more activity the women showed in these reward-areas, the more connection they reported feeling with their boyfriend while providing support.

The ventral striatum is typically stimulated by simple rewards like chocolate, money, and sex. So it seems that giving support to a loved one may be processed as a basic type of rewarding experience.

There was more interesting findings regarding what was happening in the septal area of the brain. This is a pleasure centre of the brain and when it fires, it also inhibits other areas of the brain involved in stress and the perception of threat (like the amygdala). When the women showed more activity in the septal area due to giving support, they also showed less activity in the amygdala.

The researchers also found that there was far greater activity in the reward centres of the brain when the women touched their boyfriend while he was being shocked than when touching him while he was not being shocked. Remember, these were people who were in happy relationships so it was not a case of sadism.

What it was, was an illustration that giving not only acts as a reward in itself, it also reduces your stress and fear levels.

It could all come back to the simple evolutionary fact, that supporting your loved one increases the chances that your genes will be perpetuated successfully and that is rewarding and fear reducing in itself.

It certainly shows that the lyricists were almost right; rather than “get what you give”, you “get when you give”.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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