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Blog May 8, 2020

Back to Basics: The Neurobiology of Service — How 1+1 Can Equal 3

Photo by Andre Ouellet on Unsplash

By Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D.  |   @DrSheilaOWalker

Look no further than the extraordinary altruism in support of our country’s healthcare workers to see how selfless acts of service bring a community together in tangible and palpable ways. Lovingly home-cooked meals, handwritten notes of gratitude, Girl Scouts bearing cases of cookies, and neighborhoods whooping, cheering and banging on pots and pans every night at the same time. These generous acts fuel the fire that burns in the heart and soul of our communities, creating a vibrant, connective energy that permeates the DNA of all who live, work and play within them.

Stronger together than apart is a phenomenon called collective efficacy. This group dynamic, one with widespread effects in the brain and body, creates a feeling of unity and convergence within a community, connecting every individual biopsychosocially with an energy force larger than themselves. While this larger entity is not comprised of a material, like bricks and mortar, the biochemical “upward spiral” driven by the feeling of connection is as concrete and substantive as it gets.

This collective and fundamentally human dynamic is the core feature of “Blue Zone” communities – the healthiest and longest-living populations on our planet.  


Our brains may be evolutionarily hard-wired for altruism via the powerful, positive feedback loop that feeling part of an entity larger than oneself sets into motion. Selfless acts are associated with a specific pattern of brain activity within the limbic system (emotional processing), key cortical areas within the “mentalizing network” (reputation and self-referential processing), regions such as the nucleus accumbens and anterior cingulate cortex (reward-processing areas related to pleasure), as well as structures in the salience network such as the amygdala (which alerts us when to feel fear and how to react) that guide our attention toward what to focus on and away from what is deemed helpful to ignore. In this biosocial story, the emotions we feel when helping others were designed to feel good, partly to ensure survival of our species but also to actively promote the safety and well-being of those we love.

Whatever the motivation, selfless behavior is contagious within groups, as shown by research demonstrating higher levels of cooperativeness when surrounded by those of like-minded orientation. Moreover, altruism can have a 3-1 multiplier effect (contagious up to 3 degrees of separation), fueled by biochemicals such as oxytocin (the “love” hormone, important for human connection), serotonin (induces positive mood states, higher levels combat depression), dopamine (linked to novelty, excitement, and adventure) and epinephrine (provides fast and immediate energy!). Service to others, helping those around us, is a core element in human flourishing, as it is characterized by the systemwide neurobiological response that fortifies broad measures of health, wellness and quality of life.

In short, while “paying it forward” can improve the condition of the one who receives, studies reveal that altruism can be even more powerful for the physical health and psychological well-being of the one who gives.


Not surprisingly, a service-to-others mindset is activated by meditation and an attitude of mindfulness. By slowing down the sympathetic nervous system and improving core psychological capacities such as attention and emotional self-regulation, the settling-down process allows us to open our minds and connect with the world around us, activating then actuating our inherent compassion for others.

In this state of “human being” (vs. “human doing”) we can more easily access difficult emotions: grief, sadness, anxiety. In internalizing our own feelings of pain we gradually settle into our innate empathic qualities and extend this shared feeling out to others. Tonglen meditation (Tonglen is the Tibetan word for giving and taking) is an ancient practice that fosters compassion for our fellow travelers on planet earth with the premise that by healing others at an energetic level, we also heal ourselves.

It takes only one person – in a single moment – to spark the neurobiological change that temporarily transports us away from our psychological burdens.


Compassionate Acts of Service 

The “upward spiral” is triggered when we voluntarily choose kindness. Forced or mandated altruism stimulates a different set of neural circuitry. Here are ideas for you and the children in your life to choose from.

  • Thank You! Express gratitude for those who are leaving exhaustion and fear behind in service to others. This can include teachers, healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, bus drivers and those in your own family.
  • Help celebrate a graduation! Make a sign to put up in your neighbor’s yard or at their door. Write a note of hearty CONGRATULATIONS to the graduate!
  • Create a “Day of Kindness” once per week with your family or class. Choose 3-5 things that are easy to do: call a relative, draw a picture, do a household chore without being asked, learn a recipe from a grandparent via Zoom, and get creative to support our extraordinary frontline helpers!
  • Smile with your eyes and say, “Hello!” with your heart while out and about. The eyes are “windows to the soul,” a core part of our mammalian connective tissue, and give others a sense of the human being behind the mask. As we know from science, smiling with our eyes lights up an entirely distinct, joyful neurobiological pathway. Life is all about moments, and positive energy, even between two strangers, can be powerful.
  • Run an errand for a neighbor, or cook a meal for a friend.
  • Give your full attention to a friend or colleague sharing the “new hard” of teaching during quarantine. “Zoom fatigue” may already be exacerbating the exhausting end-of-school-year race-to-summer. Empathize quietly around the common emotional thread that teaching right now is much more work for much less joy. Breathe together, connect, and heal…
  • Check in with friends who are struggling and affirm that you are there for them.
  • Offer opportunities that allow children’s natural propensity for kindness and generosity to shine. Honor wholehearted giving behavior with praise of character, not material rewards. Teach by example that actions speak louder than words.

We are living through a defining event of our time, one that is likely to fundamentally alter aspects of how our society and our world operate for generations to come. Social isolation, more damaging to our health than smoking 15 cigarettes per day, is a major public health issue. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), triggered by events perceived as traumatic in wartime and peace, often do not show up while IN the experience, but months or years later, with higher prevalence rates for our front line heroes, in particular healthcare workers and their families. Mental health, a growing crisis pre-pandemic, is now squarely on the front burner. These are just some of the issues we are facing at a societal and global level on the road ahead.

Accordingly, while the 13th century phrase “This too shall pass” is apropos, we have much yet to endure. So let’s take a moment to “travel,” in our minds, into the future. When we look back on this chapter in history, what will we remember about the choices we made in order to survive, thrive, and lift others in our midst? What are the stories we will tell our children and grandchildren about the power of the human spirit, adaptation through adversity, and the moments that helped us hold on to a ray of hope?

Here is the story. We weathered the storm, and emerged stronger, healthier, more resilient and more closely connected than we were before. We achieved post-traumatic growth by standing together, hand in hand.


As Bryan Stephenson, civil rights advocate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative says: if you want to make our world a better place, “get proximate.”  Live your message by helping others in ways that are personal, feasible, and comfortable for you. By making service a part of your narrative, modeling it in your home, classroom, and community, you are a light to others who follow your lead.

Every altruistic act boosts the balance in your neurobiological bank of human connection and resilience, an account that accumulates interest over time. The enduring personal resources (physical, psychological, intellectual, social) that accrue are yours. And here’s a bonus – withdrawal of assets only compounds the interest. Like the Magic Penny song goes: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more”

When our altruistic bank accounts are full, and we are living in “MWe,” (Me + We). it is easier to look out for everyone, not just those in our “tribe” – a dynamic that is one of the central and most formidable challenges of this time in our history. “We are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.” In the end, we have agency and we have choice. Adversity can build us up or wear us down, and we malleable, dynamic, and resourceful social animals are stronger together than apart.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Take a few moments to reflect on things that you can do today – on your own, or with family, friends, or students – to be a part of the healing and life-affirming medicine that is MWe. Coming up next week: leveraging this unique window for high-quality family time while, importantly, making time for you

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