How giving boosts your brain

15 November 2019

5 minute read

It can sometimes feel as good to give money as to earn it, says MIT neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart.

The subject of altruism and its benefits to the body and brain is close to the heart of Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Combining her years studying our most mysterious organ, together with a lengthy stint as a psychiatrist, she has now shifted to running a high-performance coaching business for senior executives.

When the chief executive officer of a FTSE 100 company wants to know how to gain a business edge by improving the health of their brain, they turn to Swart for advice. Where does philanthropy fit into this? As it happens, there is some scientific evidence that regular giving helps to keep your brain in optimal condition.

In a world where we’re working so hard to be smarter, stronger and more successful, we’re missing a trick by not thinking of mindful giving as a core piece of the puzzle

Head shot of Tara Swart

Dr Tara Swart

MIT neuroscientist

How smarter giving makes for smarter thinking

While donating money to a good cause will help boost your brain in the short term – that flood of dopamine and serotonin (the happiness hormone) creating the ‘warm glow’ we experience when giving – Swart points out that it’s the long-term neuroplasticity benefits that are most important.

This is where ‘smarter giving’ comes in. In order to effect lasting change to the organ, givers need to find a cause that they are passionate about and that they can actively be a part of. Simply writing a cheque won’t give that continued brain boost.

“If you regularly and actively give, your cortisol – the stress hormone – will reduce, giving you improved mood and several health benefits.”

Making better business decisions

Getting involved in giving can also have serious implications for the boardroom, says Swart.

“There are cascades of hormones affecting our brain and our performance. For instance, we know that testosterone correlates with confidence. Now, if you’re very stressed and you have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, that actually suppresses the beneficial effects of testosterone.

When you’re giving, you’re boosting your serotonin levels which improve your mood, and your oxytocin levels which are related to social bonding. With these positive hormones augmenting our brain, it actually boosts our confidence, reduces our stress levels, and leads to the healthiest range of risk appetite in terms of decision-making, investing and getting the most out of teams.”

Donating money to a good cause will help boost your brain – that flood of dopamine and serotonin creating the ‘warm glow’ we experience when giving

In other words, if cortisol is making you feel gloomy or doubt yourself, then the regular mood-enhancing effect of smarter giving will optimise your business performance.

“In a world where we’re working so hard to be smarter, stronger and more successful, we’re seriously missing a trick by not thinking of mindful giving as a core piece of the puzzle,” she adds.

Finally, the advantages of being actively involved with a charity means that you’ll often meet people who’ve had a very different life or work experience to your own – which means that there are learnings which go both ways.

“There are the obvious benefits of skill sharing, but actually spending time with people with really different life experience has benefits in terms of neuroplasticity. Again, your empathy pathways are being opened up, making your brain more flexible.

“We are essentially hardwired to be good and look after each other, and that’s why the notion of smarter giving is so compelling.”


Barriers to Giving

A ‘lack of faith’ between wealthy individuals and charities is a key obstacle to giving in the UK, our latest report Barriers to Giving has found. The UK’s philanthropic donations amount to just 0.5% of national GDP, compared with 2.1% in the US. This lack of major donors is having a considerable impact on UK charitable funding.


The future of giving is Smarter Giving

There is no doubt that philanthropy is a powerful force, transforming lives on both sides of the giving equation. But many misunderstandings and barriers exist around the subject, detering potential givers from donating money and time to deserving causes.

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