Staff in MacEwan’s University Service Centre collect mittens and toys for children in our community. It’s just one of many ways our students, alumni, faculty and staff give back.

What happens to your brain when you give?

December 10, 2018 | Society
Exchanging gifts with the people we care about is a universal part of the human experience. But what exactly motivates us to give — whether it’s a gift of time or a token wrapped in paper and tied with a bow?

Neuroscientist Dr. Melike Schalomon says that the most common explanation, from a brain science perspective, boils down to evolution. “When we are altruistic to our relatives — when we do something that helps or makes life easier for people who are genetically related to us — we’re increasing the likelihood that our family line will continue and that our genes will be handed down to future generations,” explains Melike, associate professor of psychology and interim dean with the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Okay. But if that’s the case, why do we give to people who don’t share our DNA? Or charities that don’t even have DNA?

“That’s much more difficult to explain using evolution as motivation,” says Melike. “There is an evolutionary argument for why we give to people who we’re not related to — the idea that if we were to help out a complete stranger or a charitable organization in the city where we live, then at some point we might need help from that same person or organization, and that would increase our likelihood of survival and our genes being passed down — but that argument is a bit tenuous.”

It’s more likely, she says, that giving comes down to how it makes us feel.

“It’s well-documented that the natural reward pathways in the brain — the mesotelencephalic dopamine system, activated by natural rewards like food or sex — are also activated by giving,” Melike explains. “So we get the same sort of happy glow from giving that we might get when we do anything else we find appealing.”

But there's more. Other areas of the brain light up when we give, including the part associated with social affiliation. One well-known study on charitable donations, says Melike, not only confirmed that natural reward circuits were involved, it also found that the medial frontal cortex is activated by giving — similar to the reaction triggered by experiences like bonding with a baby or connecting with someone we love.

There’s something comforting, says Melike, in the fact that altruism is tied to the physical structures of our brains.

“It’s built in and I find that reassuring,” she says. “It means that giving is something we, as humans, all share at a very basic level.”

If you’re inspired to give, there are many ways to do so right here on campus. Here are just a few:

Make Magic

Sometimes a wrong (or two) can make a right. Pay your parking fines and know that your misstep could end up making life a bit easier for people in our community who are living in poverty. Until December 12, parking fines are reduced to $15 and donated to Boyle Street Community Services. Contact Transportation Services for more information.

Volunteer your time

Check out the many ways you can give the gift of time by volunteering on campus.

Give to the SAMU Food Bank

Pack up some canned goods (peanut butter and pasta are always much-needed items) and drop them off at a SAMU Food Bank donation bin to help students who are struggling.

Pay it forward

If you’re in a position to do so, consider contributing to a scholarship, award or bursary. There are lots of ways our faculty, alumni, staff and recent grads are giving back.

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