Help for others can be provided in many ways, but giving targeted social support is not the same for the brain as, for example, donating funds to a charity. The first activates brain regions involved in parental care, which can help researchers understand the positive effects of social ties on health, according to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.
In comparison, providing “unfocused” support, such as giving money to an NGO, does not have the same neurobiological effects. The researchers conducted a pair of experiments to evaluate brain responses to provide different types of social support.
In the first study, 45 volunteers performed a “give support” task in which they had the opportunity to earn rewards for someone close to them who needed money (specific support), for charitable purposes (non-targeted support) or for themselves. As predicted, the participants felt more socially connected and felt that their support was more effective in providing specific social support.
The subjects then underwent an emotional assessment task, including functional magnetic resonance imaging, to assess the activation of specific brain areas when providing social support. Providing support, regardless of who received the support, was related to greater activation of the ventral striatum (VS) and the septal area (SA), regions previously linked to parental care behaviors in animals.
However, only a greater activation of SA when people gave specific support was associated with less activity in a brain structure called amygdala, sometimes linked to fear and stress responses.
In the second study, 382 participants provided information about their behavior to provide support (prosocial behavior) and underwent a different emotional qualification task with functional MRI scanning.
Again, those who reported giving more specific support to others also showed reduced activity in the amygdala. In both studies, giving non-oriented support (such as giving to charity) was not related to the activity of the amygdala.
Previous research, also published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that providing social support has positive effects on areas of the brain involved in stress and reward responses. That study suggested that providing support, not just receiving it, can be an important contributor to the physical and mental health benefits of social support.
The new work adds additional evidence that providing specific support can be uniquely beneficial. Both focused and non-targeted support are linked to greater SA activity, supporting the “warm glow” theory of providing support: we help others, directly or indirectly, simply because “it makes us feel good”.
The study adds to previous evidence that providing social support to others “may be an overlooked contributor to the well-known link between social ties and health,” the scientists write, concluding: ” Give specific support to a The identifiable individual who needs it is uniquely associated with reduced activity of the amygdala, which contributes to the understanding of how and when support can lead to health. “