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Help people in need to become better parents

A new study finds that providing social support to people in need activates regions of the brain involved in parental care.

sex and relationships Updated: Sep 03, 2018 10:33 IST
Press Trust of India
Parenting,Relationship,Helping people
Providing “untargeted” support such as giving to charity does not have the same neurobiological effects as helping someone. The study says helping someone leads to better parenting. (Shutterstock)

Providing social support specifically to people in need activates regions of the brain involved in parental care, scientists say. The findings may help researchers understand the positive health effects of social ties. By comparison, providing “untargeted” support such as giving to charity does not have the same neurobiological effects, according to the study published in the Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.

Researchers from University of Pittsburgh in the US 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 ratings 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 behaviours 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 behaviour in giving support and underwent a different emotional ratings 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 was unrelated to amygdala activity.

“Humans thrive off social connections and benefit when they act in the service of others’ well-being,” researchers said. The study shows 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”.

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First Published: Sep 03, 2018 10:31 IST