Research confirms human’s willingness to help people in need comes from imagination of helping the distressed

Team of researchers from the Boston College and the University of Albany have dedicated study in discovering reasons for human altruistic behavior. According to experts when people come across others in distress, with the help of neural pathways, people see the situation as it unfolds and people envision how they can help the people in need before acting.

This process of imagination before the actual act of aid is known as episodic stimulation, which essentially describes the ability of individuals to re-organize memories from the past into the new present situation which is stimulated in the mind.

According to experts, this process of neuroimaging helped to identify multiple brain’s pathways which in return also had a relationship between imagination and willingness to help others. For the experiment, researchers examined two separate regions of the brain. Both the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) subsystem have different functions. RTPJ is reported to represent information about minds of other people, hence the region is also known as “perspective-taking”; on the other hand, MTL is crucial to support the stimulation of imagined scenes.

Owning to results of the study, there was a direct relation between imagination of a scene and the willingness to help people in distress. As stated by Associate Professor of Psychology, Liane Young, while a scene of helping someone was stimulated among study participants, the neural activity in MTL acted as an important impulse for willingness to help the person in need. Young cites that the MTL is responsible for prosociality, which is an effect of episodic processes to help others.

“If we are able to vividly imagine helping someone, then we think we’re more likely to actually do it,” adds Young. “Imagining the scenery surrounding the situation can also prompt people to take the perspective of the people in the situation who need help, which in turn prompts prosocial action.”

Experts also draw attention to another phenomenon, an imagination inflation, where humans are instigated by a cue, which is similar to vividness of imagination. Through this cue, humans can evaluate the likelihood of an event.

In order to discover how humans tended to altruistic behavior on basis of imagined helping scenes, the experts directed study in discovering neural and cognitive mechanisms which also shed light on the relationship between episodic imagination and its effect of willingness to help those in need.

In the first experiment, experts studied the brain regions, while in the second, scientists used more practical assessment; as people were imagining helping scenes, experts used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt the action in RTPJ, which is a crucial brain region for representing other people’s minds. Through this disruption process, researchers could conclude that the effect of altruistic imagining remained intact, which thus also suggested that it was not entirely dependent on perspective-taking.

“We had initially expected that higher neural activity in the medial temporal lobe subsystem would be associated with a greater willingness to help,” as quoted by research experts. “Surprisingly, we found the opposite: the more activity a person had in their MTL subsystem while they were imagining helping scenes, the less willing they were to help the person in need.”

This result the scientists attributed to lower level of MTL activity which was responsible for greater ease of imagining episodes which also led to more willingness to help others. Moreover, the results stated that when people could easily imagine helping episodes, they were more willing to help the distressed.

Futuristic efforts in the research will be dedicated to connecting lab findings to real-world altruistic behavior.