Sympathy Triggers

Photo by Moonlightbulb

When the needle goes into someone’s arm or a scene in a movie is gruesome, what do you do? Do you turn away or cringe? Why?

Empathy. Sympathy.

You put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You recall what the prick of the needle feels like. Hopefully, you have never experienced anything gruesome, but still, you can imagine what it MIGHT feel like. Mental self-torture? No. I believe it’s a tool to connect us to other human beings.

In his NYT Bestselling book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer states that our sympathetic instinct is one of the central motivations behind altruism–truly selfless acts. (To me, this instinct was put there by God, but I can’t speak for Mr. Lehrer’s view of human origins.) The interesting part is scientists have found that people, who show more activity in the sympathetic regions of the brain, often exhibit more altruistic behavior.

“…the lovely secret of altruism,” Lehrer says, “it feels good. The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable…” In studies, many people have shown more reward-related brain activity during acts of altruism than when receiving cash rewards. Hmm. Heard that somewhere before. Better to give than receive?

For those of you who volunteer for causes close to your hearts or perform random acts of kindness, that warm feeling is nothing new. BUT, I always find it interesting when science backs up something you’ve known, yet couldn’t quite explain. And it gets better…

According to a study published in the journal, Neuropsychologia, sympathy triggers not only the emotional centers of the brain, but also those associated with performing an action. We’re programmed to see and act. How about that?

What decisions have you or someone you know made in helping another that seemed irrational or inconvenient at the time, but proved a wonderful experience? What do you empathize with most?

Additional source: University Of Washington (2002, December 3). Search For Sympathy Uncovers Patterns Of Brain Activity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 5

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13 comments on “Sympathy Triggers

  1. This is such a cool post, Marney. I work for a nonprofit ministry which has over 3,400 volunteers each year–400 of whom serve on a regular, committed basis. And we hear over and over from our volunteers that they came wanting to bless someone else, but left blessed themselves. Cool to, like you said, see science back up that “warm feeling.”

    • Wow, that’s a lot of volunteers! Y’all are definitely doing something right. I have come to believe its one of God’s phenomenal paradoxes that in helping others, we end up helping ourselves. Shouldn’t be our motivation, but a nice side effect.

  2. Great question, Marney! My heart aches for teenage girls who–though they have every reason in the world to believe they are beautiful and unique–depend on attention from self-serving guys for their self-worth. Before I landed in an abusive relationship with a smooth-talker myself, I judged these young women. Harshly. Now, I know how the desire to believe someone finds you beautiful creates a need.

    I volunteer at a pregnancy resource center, and I’m the counselor who has a heart for girls who slump with relief at their negative pregnancy test. The problem is, these girls are back in three months later for another free test. Until they understand who they were created and beautifully designed to be, until they see their femininity as a treasure, they don’t see the need to guard it. The love they’re looking for is from the Savior, and I’ve had the privilege of introducing a few of them to Him. 🙂 Lots of people ask how I can spend my day off in the busy resource center, but it’s easy. Nothing energizes me more than giving these young women a reason to hope.

  3. Well, fortunately, I sympathize with people suffering with addiction. Unfortunately, I can empathize as well, since I was addicted to prescription drugs myself. That surprises a lot of people since I’m a pharmacist. But I think that was God’s point. He needed someone who was a Christian that would be willing to speak out on addiction. It’s such a taboo subject. It’s no fun being labeled an “addict.”

    This blog post is a great one. Your comment on my blog led me to it! 😉 I actually blog on Saturdays about things that can make you happy…actually increase the hormones in your brain without drugs. One of the posts I did was on altruism if you’d like to check it out! http://celestialprescriptions.blogspot.com/2012/01/february-4-tips-to-happier-youservice.html

    • You’re a courageous woman, Celeste. It takes some kind of strength to put yourself out there and tell your story. I know you’re doing it for the betterment of other people. God bless you for that. So glad to have met you at the Blue Ridge writers conference.

    • Amazing how we really are wired to be kind to one another. I’m really enjoying your wanderlust blog. Makes me want to get back out there and travel. It’s been too long!

      • It’s never too late! When the time’s right you’ll happen upon something you really want to do and fly off for a while:) In the meantime, I’m so glad you’re enjoying it here.

        What’s amazing is that we’re so cruel and venal!

  4. Like yourself, Marney, I love when Science corroborates a truth I *want* to believe in. There is so much negative in the world that, unfortunately is true, but that I would rather not know about. This is the good stuff. How wonderful it would be if our brains lit up like light bulbs all the time. 😉

  5. Fantastic post Marney…I do believe our genuine nature is to be kind and empathetic. Unfortunately anxiety and societal programming can interfere. Thank you for such a wonderful message here…enjoyed! ~RL

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