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Turns out, providing 'targeted' social support to other people in need activates regions of the brain involved in parental care- which may help in understanding the positive health effects of social ties.
The researchers performed a pair of experiments to evaluate brain responses to providing different kinds of social support. In the first study, 45 volunteers performed a "giving support" task where they had a chance to win rewards for someone close to them who needed money (targeted support), for charity (untargeted support), or for themselves. As predicted, participants felt more socially connected and felt that their support was more effective, when giving targeted social support.
The subjects then underwent an emotional rating task including functional MRI scanning to assess activation of specific brain areas when giving social support. Providing support, regardless of who received the support, was linked to increased activation of the ventral striatum (VS) and septal area (SA) - regions previously linked to parental care behaviors in animals. However, only higher activation of the SA when people gave targeted support was associated with lower activity in a brain structure called the amygdala - sometimes linked to fear and stress responses.
In the second study, 382 participants provided information on their behavior in giving support (prosocial behavior) and underwent a different emotional rating task with functional MRI scanning. Once again, those who reported giving more targeted support to others also showed reduced activity in the amygdala. In both studies, giving untargeted support (such as giving to charity) was unrelated to amygdala activity.
The new study adds further evidence that giving targeted support may be uniquely beneficial. Both targeted and untargeted support are linked to increased SA activity, supporting the "warm glow" theory of providing support: we help others, directly or indirectly, simply because it "feels good."
But the link between increased SA activation and decreased amygdala activity suggested a neural pathway by which giving support ultimately influence health that is specific to targeted forms of support-giving, such as giving to specific people we know are in need.
The authors noted that their study cannot show a cause-and-effect of providing support on activation of the SA or amygdala. They also pointed out that providing targeted social support does not always lead to improved health - for example, prolonged care giving for an ill family member can be detrimental to health.
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