Have you ever had something happen, an incident so powerful that it changed the trajectory of your life?
Abigail Marsh had one such experience. It started with a dog and ended up launching a new area of scientific study.
Abigail was driving on a multi-lane highway when a dog darted in front of her car. She swerved. The car careened across the median, skidding to a halt facing oncoming traffic. And then the car died. And wouldn’t restart.
Terrified Abigail, at only 19 years old, was stuck at the blind crest of a hill with oncoming traffic speeding past, narrowly avoiding colliding headlong into her. She could make a run for it across multiple lanes of traffic, or she could stay in her car, but both options felt like certain death.
And then, suddenly, there was a man knocking on her passenger window. “Do you need help?” he asked. Abigail shouted “YES,” slid to the passenger side, the man darted around the car and got behind the wheel. He started her car, and before Abigail knew it, she was sitting safely on the shoulder of the highway, facing the right direction.
The good Samaritan asked Abigail if she was okay and offered to follow her home. In shock, Abigail declined further assistance, and then he drove away. She was so shaken she hadn’t even thanked this man who had witnessed her predicament, immediately braked and pulled off the highway, ran through speeding traffic, risking his own life, to try and help a stranger.
Who does that?!
And that’s the question Abigail Marsh has made it her mission to answer. As a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown University, Abigail studies people just like the man who saved her life, people she now calls extraordinary altruists.
After graduating from Dartmouth University with her Ph.D., she conducted postdoctoral work at the NIMH. Her areas of expertise include social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism and psychopathy.
Human behavior can be charted across a spectrum, with extremes at both ends, and most people falling somewhere in the middle. When mapping a spectrum of human empathy and kindness, extreme altruism is at one end of that spectrum, while psychopathy is the other extreme.
Studying psychopaths is nothing new. But how does one study an anti-psychopath? How does one even identify them?
By identifying kidney donors, Abigail found her extreme altruists in real life. People like Angela Stimpson, who donated her kidney to a complete stranger.
Abigail began reaching out to kidney donors, those who had donated to strangers, not friends or family members. Surprisingly, they were excited to help with her research. Genuinely thrilled, actually. Abigail wanted them to travel to her lab for brain scans? No problem! When did she want them there? One group of Abigail’s altruists became hopelessly lost at the testing facility because they had shown up 3 hours early; they didn’t want to be late.
She discovered that the selfless acts of her subjects were a lifestyle, and not a one-off. Many were blood or marrow donors. Some volunteered regularly. They worked with animals and fostered children. In other words: this wasn’t their first benevolent rodeo. She found that they were, as a group, very humble. They didn’t see their altruistic actions as anything special, insisting that anyone who was presented their opportunity to give would have done the same. None of them felt that they existed at the far end of a “goodness spectrum.”
Their functional MRI scans held additional clues. The altruists had amygdalas that were 30% larger than those of average people. The amygdala is a nerve cluster in the brain that is responsible for processing emotions, such as aggression, anxiety, and fear. Specifically, it is essential in recognizing other people’s fear. On the other end of the spectrum, psychopaths’ amygdalas are 18% smaller than average and less reactive to stimuli.
This begs many interesting questions that scientists, including Abigail Marsh, are working to answer. It seems that some people are born with abnormally small or large amygdalas, predisposing them to either extreme altruism or psychopathy. However, it is unclear whether actions of altruism can affect the size and responsiveness of the amygdala. Can acts of giving actually increase the size and responsiveness of your amygdala, making you likely to become even more altruistic?
My hunch is yes.
From a kabbalistic perspective, this makes complete sense. When we share with others, we create more Light in the world and in our lives, and we are inspired to share again and again.
Here’s the last take-away, extreme altruists are happy. Their extreme placement on the empathy spectrum not only makes them altruistic, it also makes them happier.
Rethink Moment: What large or small act of giving can you do today to make someone’s life a little better with the added benefit of making yourself a little happier?