Rachel Scheub

Selflessness: A Mental Disorder?


Earlier this year, on October 10th, NPR aired a podcast titled “What Drives Some People to Take Personal Risks to Help Strangers.” Before we get into the science covered in this podcast, consider this: is there such thing as a truly selfless act?  This question is trickier than it appears.  Imagine you were in line at Dunkin Donut’s this morning and you decide to pay for the person behind you in line as well.  On the surface, this appears to be a kind, totally selfless act.  How would some you benefit from paying for some random stranger’s coffee?

Even if there are not monetary or physical benefits from this kind act, research has shown that reward centers in your brain are activated when you do an altruistic act.  Those “warm fuzzies” you feel when you do something good are actually a physiological response to your kind act.  So, if your body is responding positivity to your action, you are still getting something out of your action.  So, was your choice to buy the coffee truly selfless? Or was it still intrinsically selfish because your reward centers were activated?

While this may have already blown your mind, think about a psychopath, which is a mental disorder characterized mainly by a tendency to act only in self-interest and demonstrate apathy towards others.  We would consider someone without any desire to help anyone selfish (and consider this negatively).  Why do we look down upon self-interest so much? Evolutionarily, would it not make sense for us to be motivated to survive (and therefore prioritize our own needs)?

Now, synthesize these two pieces of information. Contemplate the fact that no action is completely selfless and that theoretically, we should be motivated to survive. So, based on this, would it not be abnormal to encounter a person over-motivated to help others? Are humans programmed to not act selflessly if it is costly to our own personal health? Why would someone act detrimentally to their own health to save someone else’s life (say, by donating a kidney)?

Back to paragraph one: “What Drives Some People to Take Personal Risks to Help Strangers?” Brain scans of those who conducted life-saving acts of altruism revealed an abnormally large amygdala in people who have acted in this overly selfless manner.  Scientists interpreted this in correlation to the altruistic acts to mean that those with large amygdalae are more heightened to the fear and distress of others.  This explains why someone might decide to save the life of a stranger even if it may hurt their well-being in the long term.

At the end of the day, selflessness is more complicated, and presents both neurological and philosophical questions for us.  Most of us fall somewhere on the continuum between the guardian angel with a large amygdala and psychopaths. So, next time someone buys you a coffee in the drive-through, think about what might have been going through their head.


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