Providing support to a loved one offers benefits to the giver, not just the recipient, reveals a brain-imaging study by University of California/Los Angeles (UCLA; California, USA) scientists.
Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues studied 20 young heterosexual couples in good relationships: the 20 women in the couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans while their boyfriends were just outside the scanner receiving painful electric shocks. At times, the women could provide support by holding the arm of their boyfriends, while at other times, they had to watch their boyfriends receive shocks without being able to provide support (each woman instead held a squeeze-ball). At still other times, the boyfriends did not receive a shock, and the women could either touch or not touch them. The researchers found that when women gave support to their boyfriends in pain, the women showed increased activity in reward-related regions of the brain, including the ventral striatum and septal area. In addition, the more reward-related neural activity these women showed, the more connected they reported feeling with their boyfriends while providing support. Under conditions in which no support was provided, these regions showed decreased activity. Finding that the women who showed greater activity in the septal area also showed less activity in the amygdale, the team speculates that support-giving may have stress-reducing effects for the person who provides the support.
[Tristen K. Inagaki, Naomi I. Eisenberger. “Neural Correlates of Giving Support to a Loved One.” Psychosom Med., November 9, 2011.]