Giving up a kidney to a stranger requires a certain sense of selflessness, what’s come to be known in social science as extraordinary altruism. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz wanted to understand the connection between this trait and empathy, specifically empathy for distress emotions.
Using fMRI scans, Brethel-Haurwitz and colleagues from Georgetown University discovered that these altruistic kidney donors were more sensitive to a stranger’s fear and pain than a control group, with activation happening in a brain region called the anterior insula, which is key for emotions like pain and disgust. This research, published in Psychological Science, is the first to show a clear link between real-world altruism and empathy for the pain of strangers.
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