"If you're wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks," says Judson Brewer. (Credit: Brent Moore/Flickr)

Selfless love turns off brain’s need for reward

Romantic love tends to light up the same reward areas of the brain that are activated by cocaine. But new research shows that selfless love—a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others—actually turns off the brain’s reward centers.

“When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all,” says Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale University now at the University of Massachusetts.

As reported in the journal Brain and Behavior, the neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators.

The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.”

Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs.

The tranquility of this selfless love for others—exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Teresa or the Dalai Llama—is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.

“The intent of this practice is to specifically foster selfless love—just putting it out there and not looking for or wanting anything in return,” Brewer says.

“If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks.”

Source: Yale University

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8 Comments

  1. Gaëtan Klein

    Very interesting and good piece of psychology. I find that selfless love AND loving yourself are powerful healing forces that can help us overcome major issues.
    Love is actually a centerpiece of many religions and spiritual traditions.
    It is no suprise that it now become more and more present in therapies (EFT, Heart Assisted Therapy, Compassion Focused Therapy, Whole-Hearted Healing, etc…).

  2. Willem Lammers

    I agree with Gaëtan. It’s time that psychology leaves the scientific reduction of human beings to their bodies and the wet computer between their ears. 2500 years of spirituality cannot be that wrong, even though biological and psychological needs made religions out of it.

  3. George McElston

    People, in this secular society, are so suspicious of Christianity because they don’t want to be answerable to a higher God. There is a great deal of fear of mentioning ‘Christ’ or ‘prayer’. Yet it is patently obvious that the substitution of self interest for faith has promoted selfishness, greed and ignorance of the life-long guidance that we need in order to lead our lives respectfully and gratefully, and look after this world. Instead, we spend money on studies to tell us, with scientific authority, what we should already know in our hearts.

  4. John Burik

    Rather than merely pointing reward centers associated with selfish love are turned off (or probably better stated: not activated), I’d like to know the circuits that are turned on. The author also conflates the general practice of mindfulness (citing MBSR) with the more specific practice of _metta_ or loving-kindness — and that’s the Batesonian difference that makes a difference. Still, the piece got me curious enough to seek out the original journal article.

  5. John Burik

    Checking the source article, it begins “Loving kindness (metta) meditation is a contemplative practice…” and has nothing to do with romantic love per se. Brewer’s quotes (above) are from his pop piece at HuffPost, not the journal article. Great topic, but let’s get it right with appropriate attribution.

  6. Robert Mc

    There is a lot of focus on “loving yourself” nowadays. As the first person who commented mentioned, “AND loving yourself”.To this I would say nonsense. The reason is contained within the article. The study is about “selfless love” Therefore the focus is is outside of self. Look, I know how important is to love yourself. What I am saying is, when you focus on loving yourself, you will quickly devolve into unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. However, try focusing on loving others. Then tell me how you feel about yourself. The loving of yourself is automatic and inevitable. You simply cannot sustain a loving attitude toward others and not bring yourself along. So stop it with the “Oh, you must love your self. too” or worse, “you must love love yourself first”. That is exactly the opposite of how it really works.

  7. Mrs. Shareen Ferrans

    Completely agree with Robert Mc. Loving others can’t help but lead back to yourself. This emphasis on loving yourself first just leads to what’s wrong in this world right now.

  8. Kerry Alley

    In my experience, I think that striving for selfless self love has been essential to cultivating my ability to feel selfless love for others. But I do think that selfless self love is different from ego building emotions. (Using ego in the casual sense)

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