Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Getting High on Helping Others

An amazing article recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Doctors Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, shows what happens in the brain when we help others. Incredibly, when we help others, a primitive area of the brain gets activated--the same area that is activated by food, sex or drugs.

We have known for a long time now that the pleasure center of the brain (The Ventral Tegmental/Nucleus Accumbens region) is full of dopamine and when we satisfy our basic needs (food, fluids and fornication), we release extra dopamine in that region and we feel a strong pleasurable sensation. Addictive drugs, of course, all release extra dopamine, which is why we like using them.

Now, Doctors Moll and Grafman have put patients into a special MRI scanner and asked them to imagine either donating money to charity or keeping it for themselves. To their surprise, when the patients were asked to think of others more than themselves, their pleasure centers were strongly activated.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, maybe your mother was right when she said, "Always think of others." A long time ago, St. Francis of Assisi said, "For it is in giving that we receive." It seems that he was on to something. This research really does show that when we give to others we also benefit.

The 12-step programs have a long tradition of helping others. Bill W., who founded AA, said that it was only when he reached out to another suffering alcoholic that he was able to forget about his problems and stay sober himself.

Active 12-step participants are encouraged to sponsor newcomers, and most sponsors will report that they feel that they also get a lot out of the relationship. One of the slogans of AA is that "we only get to keep it, if we give it away!" The 12th step of AA and NA teaches us to "...carry the message to the alcoholic or addict who still suffers."

Giving back and helping others is a huge part of what recovery is all about. It is so exciting to me that we now have brain research that shines a little light on how and why this works.

So, do yourself a favor--get out there and help someone else!

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