The neuroscience of giving: why it makes us feel so good and what it can teach us about communications

Terese Brasen | January 29, 2019

You react automatically. Break into a smile and do a little dance. Someone is saying thank you, and it feels really good to receive the call, email, handshake or hug.

Giving is an empathetic act associated with our brain’s default mode network. As the word “default” suggests, this network is the brain’s resting state. Activating it comes naturally.



In our busy minds, the default mode and task-positive networks toggle off and on. If one switches on, the other usually shuts down. When we’re feeling connected and empathetic toward others, the default mode network lights up. Telling stories, thinking about others, remembering the past and dreaming about the future are default mode network mindsets. The task-positive network is at play when we’re zoning others out and focusing. Think spreadsheets, expense claims and proofs.

Neurologists talk about being “in the zone.” At rare times, both networks are active. When a great hockey player rushes up the ice, receives a pass and scores, they’re experiencing a perfect, in-the-zone moment. When you’re in the zone, you’re both connected and task focused. I can imagine how it feels. Occasionally, I fire on all cylinders, but most days, my brain toggles in and out of the default mode and task-positive networks.

Giving activates the default mode network. Volunteers, donors and sponsors aren’t thinking about personal rewards or how much they’re owed or deserve. They aren’t calculating. They’re caring about others and freely sharing their time and talents. Those actions light up the default mode network, as thank yous bing into their inboxes.

It’s powerful. We’re social creatures. We’re happiest when we feel connected and are under the influence of our default mode networks.

IABC Edmonton has more than 20 board members who give many hours to the profession and to their fellow communicators. In addition, other volunteers freely help in selfless ways, from taking tickets at events to capturing excitement for social media. And then there are all the sponsors, who write cheques and give away their photography, audio-visual services, printing, and creative talent.  We do it because being generous and caring about our profession and other communicators stimulates healthy parts of our brain that make us feel good.

As a communicator, I am always thinking about the two networks and asking, “Which zone I am lighting up right now.” Messages about money, chores, security or entitlement will activate the task-positive network—not the default mode. Human interest stories that evoke empathy trigger the default mode and are therefore inspire actions, like giving.



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