We will explore the neurobiological basis of altruism by empirically assessing shared neural representations of pain and fear in extraordinary altruists, specifically adults who have donated a kidney to a stranger. Our preliminary data shows that these extraordinary altruists exhibit enhanced responsiveness to others’ fear in a brain region also critical to the experience of fear. These findings suggest a link between extraordinary altruism and enhanced self-other mapping at the neural level in response to others’ fear. Self-other neural mapping has been shown to underlie empathy for pain. But behaviorally, empathy for fear more strongly predicts altruism. However, whether self-other mapping occurs in response to others’ fear has never been tested or linked to altruism.

We will use neuroimaging to measure responses to personally experienced and empathic pain and fear in altruists and controls using a validated empathic pain paradigm altered to include both pain and fear trials. Prior to one run of the task, participants will receive an empathy induction prompt. This will enable us to test the hypotheses that empathy for fear a) represents self-other mapping at the neural level, b) predicts enhanced altruism, and c) can be enhanced using an empathy manipulation. Projected results would refute the notion that fear circuit activation in response to others’ fear reflects a self-interested threat response, representing a conceptual leap for the field and potentially reframing a number of established findings. Outputs include peer-reviewed publications and dissemination of findings to scholars and clinicians.

In linking altruism to shared neural representations of fear and/or pain, this project may produce support for the existence of genuine altruism by providing a plausible neurobiological mechanism by which altruism can emerge, and perhaps be enhanced, in normal human adults.