The Helper’s High: The Neurobiology of Helping Others

“There are so many people who say that nature is savage, that if we could rid ourselves of social constraints we would become animals and literally eat each other alive. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. There are sides of us that are quite brutal and selfish, but nature has given us many gifts among them something known as the helper’s high: the neurobiology of helping others.”
— Jason Silva on “The Helper’s High”.

It’s an age old quandary: are we inherently selfish?

The examination of human nature, notwithstanding environmental factors, has been of long-time interest to neuroscientists and psychologists. Is civilization a smokescreen for our basic, inhumane impulses?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that we’re inherently selfish beings. A famous thought experiment, known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is an oft-cited hypothetical that academics use to demonstrate the impulse we have to act in our self-interest. The Prisoner’s Dilemma involves two individuals that are given certain cooperative and competitive options.

Imagine that you and an accomplice have been arrested for robbing a bank. Unbeknownst to the other and while in complete isolation, the authorities give each of you the following options:

a) If you confess, and your accomplice remains silent, all charges against you will be dropped, and your partner will be put away for time

b) If you remain silent, but your partner confesses, then your partner will go free, while you end up in prison

c) If you both confess, you will both be convicted, but you’ll get an early parole.

d) If you both remain silent, you’ll serve a small sentence for possession of firearms.

Clearly, the best — and perhaps safest — outcome for either prisoner is for both to remain silent and for both to serve the minimum time for possession of firearms. However, game theory tells us that any rational individual in this scenario will act explicitly in his/her self-interest. In other words, assuming that both prisoners are rational, both will confess. This happens because both prisoners choose the strategy that will allow them to go scot-free while their partner pays a hefty price. However, ultimately, when both confess, they both serve the maximum prison time from each of the given options, even though cooperating with each other and remaining silent would have gotten them a minimal sentence.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma has some important implications for the world of business and economics. But today, as the fundamental structure of our world and industries are altered by exponential technologies, these implications ought to be questioned. In many ways, the Prisoner’s Dilemma oversimplified human nature and makes some erroneous assumptions about it. It was theorized at a time where basic economic models and theories determined how players in various markets behave. Today, these models are losing credence.

Even based on social realities, it’s often tempting to take a cynical view of human nature. Given the various unpleasant interactions that we tend to have with people — from a friend taking advantage of us to a business deal ripe with corruption — it’s natural that we jump to this view.

The selfish parts of our nature undoubtedly exist. But so do the good ones, and these parts warrant as much attention as the bad parts. According to neuroscientists, altruism — the practice of concern for the welfare of others — may be more hardwired in our brains than previously thought.

Is Altruism Deeply Rooted in Human Nature?

Many of us feel the need to give to charity. We also often hear about the selfless acts that people take to save other people. In his book “Natural Born Heroes”, Christopher McDougall recounts stories and instances in human history where perfectly ordinary individuals have carried out extraordinary heroic acts — like a teacher putting herself in danger to defend her students from a shooter. These incidents don’t tell the story of how one individual carefully planned and trained to be heroic — they tell the story of how seemingly average people, with no prior knowledge, forethought or preconception of superhero abilities, instinctively and reflexively act to save other people.

Just as we’re turned off by unpleasant social correspondence, a quick glance at our daily interactions with other people will tell you that there’s also something intrinsic about acting altruistically. We want to help people. When a friend is in need, we extend our empathy and provide tools to help said friend because something within us feels the need to. When we successfully help those in need, we feel good. This isn’t just a vague assumption about human nature: it’s rooted in scientific fact. In 2011, researchers Jamil Zaki and Jason Mitchell conducted a study on altruism and subsequently proposed a theory: we feel good by helping others not because we are trying to avoid negative circumstances, but because behaviors like fairness, cooperation, and reciprocity are intrinsically rewarding.

Zaki and Mitchell asked subjects to play a dictator game, in which actors are asked to divide resources between themselves and others as they see fit, without the possibility of sanctions and reputation costs. What they found was that even in the absence of such threats, the majority of participants share significant amounts of money with others. Interestingly, they found that acting equitably activated the oribitofrontal cortex in participants — i.e. the part of the brain that’s responsible for assessing rewards.

The Happiness Trifecta

Neuroscience has demonstrated that giving is a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy. Helping others triggers impacts to our brain in many positive ways. When we help others, our brains release oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. These hormones have the effect of boosting our mood and counteract the effect of cortisol (the stress hormone).

This might urge some people to ask: is giving itself inherently selfish then? Perhaps, but that’s not a bad thing. On a neurobiological level, studies suggest that giving social support to others may benefit the giver more than the receiver. In one study, that compared giving versus receiving, participants were asked about various scenarios in which they either gave or received support. In a series of fMRI neuroimaging tests, the study found that giving ultimately had greater benefits than receiving. In other words, from an evolutionary perspective, our brains are hardwired to feel rewarded more for magnanimity and selflessness than for meanness and selfishness.

The brain images showed than when a participant was giving support, certain brain areas showed more activation: 1) reduced stress-related activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and right amygdala, 2) greater reward-related activity in the left and right ventral striatum and 3) greater caregiving-related activity.

The New Billionaire

Techno-optmists like Jason Silva have suggested a new framework for understanding what it means to be a billionaire. In a world where our social and economic structures are massively disrupted by exponential technologies, we ought to consider this framework:

what if being a billionaire meant positively touching a billion people?

To some, this might sound idealistic, unrealistic and utopian. But to demonstrate that it’s not, let’s consider one of the most interesting, important and profound experiments in community and art: Burning Man.

Burning Man: Our Future

Last month, I attended the largest regional Burning Man event in Tankwa Town, South Africa; known to many as AfrikaBurn.

Unlike what many people presume, Burning Man is not just a festival of the arts or music. In fact, it’s not a festival at all. Burning Man is an edifying event, a temporary city, a community built off people who want to give. As most people who have been to Burning Man or one of its regional events will tell you, once you go, you feel a strong desire to go back and, often, you feel the urge to keep giving back to the Burner community. During the 7 to 10 day period of camping out in the desert, in some of the harshest conditions of the planet, Burners follow some basic principles to survive and learn, known as the “Ten Principles” — radical inclusion, gifting, decommidification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

Burning Man is many things — the art is unbelievable, the outfits and creativity is out of this world, the people are whimsical, fancy, strange and extraordinary, and the experience of being completely removed and disconnected from civilization is profound. People come back from Burning Man saying that the experience was transformative, to say the least. Many, including me, consider it to be absolutely transcendental. This piece is not a description of what one sees at Burning Man — an entirely separate piece ought to be dedicated to that. Here, I want to talk about one of the most striking things that people experience at Burning Man — a value that we need to bring back to the default world: the helper’s high, in abundance.

Burning Man not only survives, but thrives, on the gifting economy. One of the reasons many people are drawn to the community is because they witness humanity in its most creative and generous states. At Burning Man, it’s not uncommon to go out for stroll on the playa, only to be gifted a string of things by people who simply want to enhance your day and your overall experience — you might receive ya trinket, a hug, a drink, a snack, a shower, a work of art, a creative mind-game, or some other whimsical gift.

With the exception of coffee and ice, nothing at Burning Man is for sale. Out in the desert, one is completely cut from civilization. The simple things in urban life, like fast-food restaurant chains and stores don’t exist. Outsiders often assume that, because of this decommodification, Burning Man is a barter economy — but it isn’t. Burning Man is explicitly and radically a gifting economy. Every single thing that you receive or give at Burning Man is a gift.

The Two Type of Social Markets

At Burning Man and AfrikaBurn, the most valuable currency isn’t money: it’s creativity. In fact, money is completely removed from the equation.

Researches James Heyman and Dan Ariely propose that there are two types of human transactions. In monetary markets, people pay money for goods and services. In social markets, people help and share with one another out of kindness. At Burning Man, virtually all human interaction takes place in social markets, making generosity a defining factor of the community.

In many ways, at Burning Man, people are constantly experiencing the helper’s high. The environment that the event operates within reinforces this by boosting peoples’ moods and subsequently encouraging them to gift to others. Many studies have shown a link between positive mood and generosity. A study done by neuroscientists Robb Rutledge showed that feeling happy depends not on how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected. Burning Man is full of whimsical surprises that reinforce that things are going better than expected. At a Burn, one can expect to head out onto the playa and have profound interactions with complete strangers, be treated like family by complete strangers, be given random gifts by people in outrageously creative outfits, and interact with art and artists that have taken the painstaking effort to create a week-long installation simply for the benefit of the rest of the community.

Moreover, at a Burn, people don’t just spontaneously give while they’re at the event. A good number of people — including myself — invest their own time, effort and money beforehand to make other people’s experiences at the Burn more beautiful, interesting and comfortable.

At Burning Man, the most valuable or popular individual isn’t the wealthiest, but rather the one that has the most creative and unique offering.

Lessons and Takeaways

There are many profound takeaways from Burning Man that we can use to make the world a significantly better place. For one, it tells us that when money is removed from the equation and creativity is valued, communities work in significantly better and happier ways. On an individual level, it tells us that gifting to the community — whether on a small or large scale — even within the structure of our existing society can increase our own happiness and that of others.

People often wonder about what might happen in a world without work — a post-AI, post-UBI world. To envision it, we needn’t look further than Burning Man. When we give in to our inherent desire to give and help others, we lead significantly better lives. This isn’t just an opinionated statement: it’s a reality rooted in scientific fact and one that has been proven by one of the most unique community experiments’ of our time.