"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