Super Altruists (Who’ve Donated a Kidney to a Stranger) Show Heightened Empathic Brain Activity When Witnessing Strangers in Pain

At a group level, the altruists exhibited greater neural overlap while experiencing pain and while witnessing a stranger in pain, including in the left anterior insular, putamen, thalamus, prefrontal cortex, and cingulate cortex (all known areas of the brain’s “pain matrix”). The altruists also showed greater neural overlap when anticipating pain themselves and when anticipating that their partner would experience it. These group contrasts are despite the altruists and controls showing comparable average patterns of neural activation when experiencing pain, or the threat of it, themselves. At an individual level, for the altruists but not the controls, the neural activation they showed in the left anterior insular while in pain correlated with the amount of activation they showed in that same region when observing their partner in pain.

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