Extraordinary Empathy

with Abigail Marsh

Are some people more empathetic than others? By studying those on the opposite end of the compassion spectrum–those with psychopathy–researcher Dr. Abigail Marsh discovered something surprising. In this episode, Kate and Abigail talk about the use of fear, what it really means to be brave, and how we can all learn to better belong to one another.




Abigail Marsh

Abigail Marsh is a psychologist and neuroscientist who works as a professor  at Georgetown University. Her areas of expertise include social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism, aggression, and psychopathy. Her work on neural and cognitive correlates of extraordinary altruism was awarded the Cozzarelli Prize by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is the author of The Fear Factor and Good for Nothing.

Show Notes

Discussion Questions

1. Psychologist Abigail Marsh is both a recipient of and expert in extraordinary altruism. In other words, she’s well-versed in people who put their life on the line for others when it doesn’t serve them, genetically or socially. What’s the most extraordinary example of extraordinary altruism you’ve ever experienced?

2. Research suggests that we’re more likely to help those who we’re related to or in close proximity to. But the question of where our body ends and another’s begins—is not so clear. (Remember the rubber hand experiment.) Have you ever felt someone else to be an extension of your own “me-ness?” Was that someone else a loved one, a stranger, a community? What does this suggest about your capacity for empathy?

3. “Most people,” Dr. Marsh thinks, “have the capacity to develop these really strong, empathic feelings for people who are very different from themselves if they are in the right frame of mind.” What do you think she means by “the right frame of mind” and what practices help get you/us there?

4. Marsh has also studied the flip side of empathy: psychopathy. But instead of feeling depressed by the research, she says it’s been reassuring to realize that selfishness is not normal. There’s a range of compassion and most of us are very capable of caring for others. What reassures you about being on a spectrum of altruism?

5. One of the common misconceptions about psychopathy and other psychological disorders is that they’re a result of bad parenting (and, more specifically, Mom’s parenting). Why do you think this cause and effect has been so compelling to people for so long? Why do you think it’s more useful to think about these disorders through a disease model rather than a moral model?

6. Marsh found that the best predictor of empathy in the lab was how well someone could recognize fear in others. Does this finding surprise you? How could it reorient your relationship to fear in others—or in yourself? How could it reorient your relationship to courage in others—or in yourself?

7. “There’s this weird belief out there that to be virtuous, you have to not feel fear,” Dr. Marsh observes. But real virtue is knowing when fear is less important than serving a higher purpose. (Thanks, Aristotle.) Who do you know that lives with this kind of both/and fear and love?

8. A lot of the extraordinary organ donors Dr. Marsh has interviewed insist “I’m not that special”—even though there’s some research on their amygdalae that would suggest otherwise. They seemed to believe that belonging to each other beyond biology or proximity was just something intrinsic to all of humanity. Does their perspective inspire you to live larger? In what way? Be specific, if you can.

9. The thing that gives Dr. Marsh the most optimism about her work is the notion that “helping each other is a self-reinforcing process.” This isn’t exactly selfish. It’s just how altruism works. Bringing other people joy is more satisfying than drawing resources to yourself. What does knowing this give you permission to pursue, “selfishly and beautifully”?

10. “We can all develop a bit more compassion for people who are dissimilar from us, to see people expressing fear or distress and move toward them,” Kate reflects. So, who will you move toward today?

Bonus: After listening to this week’s podcast, what part of Kate & Dr. Marsh’s conversation resonated with you most? What insight will you carry with you?

Discussion Questions written by author, editor, and facilitator Erin S. Lane.


Kate Bowler:                     Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always living the plotline of the Bachelorette. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.

K.B.:                                   Would you give an organ to a total stranger? How about run into a burning building to save someone you don’t even know? If you saw someone on the side of the road and they looked like they really needed help, would you stop? Some people go to incredible lengths to help strangers. Today’s guest learned this firsthand when she was in a car accident during college. A man she didn’t know came to her rescue, putting himself at risk to make sure that she was moved to safety and she never even got his name, never had a chance to thank him. That isn’t just empathy, that is extraordinary altruism. So what makes a person risk their own well-being for someone else? My guest today has been asking that question for a long time. Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Abigail Marsh. She is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Georgetown University. She received her PhD from Harvard and did postdoc research at the National Institutes of Health, which is to say, she’s amazing and I’m so grateful to be speaking to a fellow nerd today. And she has a spectacular TED talk. You just have to watch. She’s the author of the book The Fear Factor, where she studies people who show intense altruism and the people who have no empathy. Today, we’ll be talking about both. Also, I completely love the fact that we are both in homes full of children making noises when they should all probably be in their zoom classes. I’m sure you’ll hear it. OK, hello. Thank you so much for being here, Abigail.

Abigail Marsh:                    Thank you for a very nice introduction.

Kate Bowler:                       Well, I believe all of it. I was so struck by your intense and beautiful curiosity about what makes people incredibly altruistic. As you describe, it’s not uncommon to want to help people you’re close to, or when there’s an assumption that you’re going to take care of each other like neighbors. You’ve got great language for how we think about what we expect from people. Could you walk me through that a little bit?

A.M.:                           Yeah, sure. The question of why people would ever help other people has been niggling at scientists for a long time and philosophers and also to people, because it seems to fly in the face of the things we, quote “know” about human nature that it’s inherently selfish. You know, the good old selfish gene which gets mis-read so terribly. And, you know, the idea of nature red in tooth and claw and the nature is being this inherently sort of selfishness, rewarding mechanism. And so there have been efforts over the years to kind of carve away at the different kinds of reasons that we might hope other people or other organisms that are scientifically explicable. And some of the best known reasons are one of them is what’s called kin selection. And this is what the selfish gene was really getting at, is that we, you know, it’s to our benefit to help those who are genetically related to us, not our personal benefit, but the benefit of our genes. And that is that evolution acts on the level of gene. It makes sense that we’ve all been selected to invest in those who share genes to maximize the odds that our genes will make it onto future generations. And then another really well-known mechanism that operates all throughout the animal kingdom, including in every human culture in the world, is reciprocal altruism, which just means helping people who’ve helped you in the past and who you anticipate may help you in the future. Just cooperation that’s happening over time. We know, this sort of thing happens all the time that people sacrifice their own short term resources to help others, and then those other people are indebted to you or are obligated to you or just grateful to you and are more likely to help you the next time around. And this is, I mean, this sort of stuff makes the world go round. I suppose it is selfish and one way of looking at it, but it is also pro-social. Right? It’s a very positive social behavior.

K.B.:                          Going back to the likeness piece, the idea that we’re more likely to be kind to those who look the same, we have proximity to, it seems like there’s real data to suggest that we’re even more likely to help people when we can physically see them, as opposed to like behind a wall. We had this amazing guest on the podcast, Anthony Ray Hinton, who was unjustly convicted and on death row. He has this amazing story where he developed incredible compassion for a prisoner he couldn’t physically see through a prisoner wall and who was, in fact, a clan member. So I kept thinking of him in reading your work. Why is someone like that so extraordinary?

A.M.:                         Woah I just got goose bumps from that story. That’s a great one. Yeah, so this gets to a puzzle that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately, which is how is it that our brain knows where our body ends and the rest of the world begins? Our brains don’t assume that we end at the barrier of our skin. You know? And there’s all sorts of interesting ways we know this. We know, for example, that when people use a tool, for example, if you know, if you’re using a long pole to do some sort of a task. Your brain understands that tool as sort of your cooperator and it starts remodeling your brain to incorporate that tool as though it’s an extension of your own body.

K.B.:                       Oh, my gosh.

A.M.:                       Your motor cortex starts to change so that it understands you is ending at the end of that tool instead, and your brain does this really quickly. And we know it does this is with people, too. So there’s a famous thing called rubber hand illusion, where you show somebody, you position this rubber hand, it doesn’t even look that realistic. And then they put their own hand under the table and then some poor research assistant has to stroke the rubber hand and the person’s own hand with like a little paintbrush in perfect synchrony so that you’re feeling the sensation on your own hand and seeing it on the rubber hand. And in most people, you get a very quick illusion that happens where the rubber hand you start to feel like it’s your own. And weird things happen to the biology of your own arm, like your body starts like rejecting it. Blood sugar, it will drop in your arm, like weird immune changes happen. Like your body is like, well, I guess this is my new arm. And you’ll have really strong emotional reactions if somebody moves to like hit the rubber arm with a hammer.

K.B.:                            I love this study so much already!

A.M.:                           I love it so much. I just, I find it such an interesting study. And so your body is constantly trying to figure out like who’s me and who’s not me. And I think something that’s really interesting about humans and it’s really intrinsic to our being so social, as are our brains are kinda like, come one, come all! Like, I am perfectly willing to think about having a wider identity than just the boundaries of my own skin. And that is what it means to have a close bond with another person. It’s like they are really a part of you.

K.B.:                            Yeah.

A.M.:                            You know, your brain has broadened the boundaries of you to incorporate that person into your identity. And so it makes perfect sense that we can do that more easily for people who we know very well. We know them so well, that I mean, you know, I feel this way about my husband, like, he just feels like a part of myself now, you know, like twins probably feel this way. But even people who were just sort of similar to us, we get them. We can predict what they’re going to do. We understand them. We can sort of imagine the experiences they’re having, all this which signals to your brain, like oh yeah, yeah, yeah, this is part of me. This is a little bit of me-ness. And all sorts of interesting social phenomena are designed to promote that feeling. So for example when people are dancing together, when they’re singing together, when you’re behaving in unison with other people, it sort of promotes that feeling of we’re all part of one entity.

K.B.:                          Yes, yes, yes. That makes sense. I love too, the Valentine’s Day cards that could be an extension of this. Like, you are my rubber hand when I see you, I see a very close approximation of myself, but out in the world. That is amazing, because I, you know, we talk a lot here about interdependence and what makes this beautiful porousness between us, and like the work of empathy. Right? That like, that seems to fill up the space. And what you’re describing too just neurologically, it’s kind of wonderful that ourselves are not maybe as contained as we imagine.

A.M.:                           Exactly. And you know, it’s nice, it kind of makes you feel a little less lonely. But what’s neat is that even though, yes, it is easier for us to have these strong sort of empathic experiences with people who are more familiar or similar to ourselves, it’s not limited to that. Many people, I would say most people certainly have the capacity to develop these really strong, empathic feelings for people who were very different from themselves if they are in the right sort of frame of mind. Like, you know, these two prisoners, you talk about who you know very different people, obviously, but something about maybe sharing that situation that they were in and that long period of familiarity it, you know, it might forge a willingness to see where, you know, where there might be a common core of humanity that we share.

K.B.:                          Yeah. One of the things he described was a desire, like a deep desire for freedom. And that because he was, of course, on death row in tiny, squalid quarters, that by the work of accepting other people’s burdens as his own, he felt, he felt freer. And I imagine that there’s something very powerful that happens when we, when we stop, I don’t know, when we just find different ways around our rabid individualism, which I am for.

A.M.:                          Certainly true that most people report, you know, a stronger sense of well-being when they feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves, when they feel a sense of purpose attached to something beyond their own immediate self-interest.

K.B.:                          Yes, that’s right. And so you became so curious about the kind of empathy that may have stumped Charles Darwin. Like things that seemed to go against the laws of nature, that people are primarily self-interested. What makes that kind of altruism so extraordinary?

A.M.:                            The kind of altruism I am most interested in is when people take extreme measures to help strangers in particular. And that’s interesting because you can’t explain it according to either kin selection or reciprocal altruism. It doesn’t fit into either one of those models. And yet it happens, we know it happens. It happened to me, like it happens to lots of people. So it needs an explanation. And I just found myself unsatisfied with some of the other going explanations out there, like people who help strangers are, you know, without fear. They just they just don’t recognize risk because that is not what you hear, and the narratives told by many who are rescuers. I love the story of Cory Booker, for example. He’s one of my favorite real life heroic rescuers. He was terrified the entire time he was running through a burning house to save his neighbor from dying in a fire.

K.B.:                           Oh, my gosh.

A.M.:                          He came up with, like, nine different ways in interviews to talk about terrified he was. But he did it always. That’s to me, the most amazing thing about real heroes is that they are scared and they are brave at the same time. And that’s real virtue. And to me, you’re trying to understand where that comes from is the really interesting mystery.

K.B.:                         Yeah. You’re describing such ancient questions, which I love. Right? This very age old debate about how good or how evil we truly are. I’m a professor of Christian history. And so we have these ongoing debates about what we call, this will all sound familiar to you, but high or low anthropology. Right? Like in a high anthropology, and this is also the anthropology of self-help too, which is that you can teach people to do almost anything that they can put their minds to, being better is about education and progress. And then in a low anthropology, they teach that people are basically terrible and that we all need saving. What kind of anthropology does your work suggest?

A.M.:                         I really feel like an important component of my work is that I don’t ignore either end of the spectrum. When you know the research I do in altruism, a really important part of my sort of understanding of altruism derived from the fact that in my postdoctoral work I study people who are the opposite of altruistic, who are psychopathic. Who do not care about other people, and they really don’t. I think there’s a sort of a common myth about psychopathy that people are psychopathic, are sort of really hurting inside and have a lot of, you know, really a lot of self-loathing, and if you could just, maybe due to prior trauma or abuse, and if you just work through that, you would there would be a kind, compassionate person underneath. Now, that is something that can happen. There are many people for whom that’s exactly what their deal is. They are hurting, and there’s a lot of self-loathing due to abuse or trauma, and if you work through that a kind of person, is there underneath. I’ve met many people like that. That’s not psychopathy. Psychopathy does not result from abuse or trauma. That’s, other problems result from abuse and trauma. It’s, you know, it’s a personality disorder that’s associated with really not caring about other people. Like, you care about yourself in this present moment, and that’s it.

K.B.:                          Yeah.

A.M.:                       I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are differences in how much people care about others, and there are some people in the world who really don’t care about other people. And that exists, and I think it doesn’t do any good to pretend that it doesn’t. But the flip side of it, because people say isn’t it so depressing to research psychopathy? I’m like it’s the opposite, because what it has convinced me of is how not normal selfishness is. If everybody was selfish, like some economists still insist is true, then there would be no such thing as somebody who is psychopathic. That would just be a normal person. But the fact that people were psychopathic are so different. I mean, and I should also mention that the average person who is psychopathic is not like a Ted Bundy murderer and that, you know, many people who are psychopathic, aren’t even violent, they’re just terribly callous and manipulative and narcissistic and deceitful. And that’s not normal! And how like what a beautiful thing that is, that actually the average person is very capable of caring about others. And that there’s a spectrum, so that, you know, we’ve gotten the very low end, we have people who are psychopathic, who are pretty rare. You’ve got most of us who are in the middle, who are pretty compassionate and could always become more so. But than at the height of it we have some people who are really unusually caring and compassionate, who really are sort of, you know, moral exemplars that we can all look to for inspiration.

K.B.:                            I was so struck by this research that you’re describing, your work interviewing kids who displayed this psychopathic behavior. One of the things we’ve talked about with guests like Andrew Solomon is, is the cost to parents who are not sure how to how to manage the narrative that we have that kids with behavioral issues inherently must have abusive parents or that, the social cost of managing these kids. And their very troubling lack of like social connect with others.

A.M.:                       It’s so hard. The people that actually do make me feel the most sort of suffering when I work with kids with psychopathy is their parents, because, you know, once upon a time, I don’t know how familiar with us most people are. You know, some of the earliest psychological disorders to really be formally identified were disorders like schizophrenia and which emerge in adolescence usually, I mean, the signs tend to appear in the teenage years and then it comes into sort of full expression in the late teens or early twenties. And, you know, low and behold, psychology was very Freudian at the time. Like, what did people attribute schizophrenia to at the time? Moms. You know, there was the word called the schizophrenogenic mother, the mom who made her kids schizophrenic. Well, you know a little time goes by. We do a little research on schizophrenia and think, well, that’s not at all what causes schizophrenia. There are certainly you know better and worse parents and their parenting styles that can result in better or worse outcomes for people with schizophrenia. But parenting does not cause schizophrenia and I think everybody agrees with that now.

K.B.:                       Yeah.

A.M.:                    Not too long after that, autism becomes identified and people, you know, formalize the definition of autism. And, you know, we’re interested in what causes it. And as you probably know what was blamed? The refrigerator mother. Moms again. Well, maybe that don’t cause schizophrenia, but they do cause autism. Of course they don’t. And as time goes on and more science is done, we’re like OK, you know what autism is a neurological, well it’s a psychological disorder but there’s not an appreciable difference between the two. We know what causes it, and it’s not bad parenting. Again, there are very effective parenting techniques that can help kids with autism have better outcomes. But it’s not caused by parenting and P.S: substance abuse has followed a sort of similar trajectory more recently where I think people are understanding a little more, that at least it’s more useful to think about it through a disease model than through a sort of bad moral sort of a brain model. And I hope that with psychopathy, people will get to the place that they understand that the same thing is true, that parents do not cause psychopathy in their kids, they don’t. And there are you know, they’re better and worse parents in the world. And things that parents can do to lead to better outcomes with their kids who have psychopathy, but they do not make their kids psychopathic. And many really wonderful parents end up with psychopathic kids anyway. I feel so much compassion for the parents I work for who they feel so much shame and so much stigma on top of how difficult their kids are. People blame them for the way their kids turned out. It’s just not right.

K.B.:                       Yes, that’s right. That connection that you describe between fear and empathy I think would be so helpful for people in this very self-helpy culture, people are always trying to make fear the enemy like you just have to overcome your feelings, you’re supposed to manage your responses all the time with Zen like clarity. But your research found a very positive result of fear when it comes to empathy. What was it?

A.M.:                     There’s this really interesting relationship between fear and empathy. And this is something that I first started picking up on when I was a graduate student and found a little bit serendipitously in some of my early studies that when I was looking for predictors of individual variation in empathy. So how caring people were in response to other people suffering. The best predictor I was able to find in the lab was how well people could recognize when other people were afraid.

K.B.:                      Yeah.

A.M.:                     Fear is not that easy an expression for people to recognize in general. It gets confused a lot with surprise and sometimes anger. But I show them a bunch of facial expressions and ask them just to come up with the best label for each one. And the people who were the most altruistic, according to lots of different ways of measuring altruism, giving money, or volunteering time to help somebody or, you know, even just being nice when given the opportunity. When they especially looked at the fearful facial expressions, they were much more likely to be accurate and recognize that. And that was such a weird finding. But then I found this whole body of research that was done by the person who would become my postdoctoral advisor, that people who were psychopathic are really bad at recognizing fear, like really bad at recognizing fear. And it’s like, oh, this is so making sense. You know? I mean, it’s all fitting together. And we think that a major reason that the two things go together is partly because the ability to recognize the way somebody else is feeling is a fundamentally empathic process. And people who are psychopathic are notoriously fearless. They often I mean, I’ve worked with kids who are psychopathic, who say they’ve never felt afraid of anything. And you know kids don’t say that normally. And then if you really don’t know what it means to feel afraid, like for example, a really famous psychopathy researcher Bob Hare was once interviewing a psychopathic sex offender in Canada, as it turned out.

K.B.:                         Thank you for that shout out. You’re like in Canada, actually, if you might know him (laughter).

A.M.:                       And he was asked whether he empathized with his victims because you would think why wouldn’t their suffering and distress stop you? And he said, well, you know, they’re frightened right you see, but I don’t really understand what the big deal is. I’ve been afraid myself, and it wasn’t unpleasant. You’re sort of missing the point of fear. That’s exactly what fear is, it’s unpleasant. And if you really don’t understand that feeling afraid is a very distressing and pleasant way to feel, why would you be motivated not to make somebody feel that way? And so as a result, people who are psychopathic really struggle to even recognize when somebody else is afraid because it just isn’t it doesn’t even click. It’s almost like they’re colorblind. I mean, I have one more story where I have a colleague who is testing psychopathic offenders in a prison in England and showing them all the same faces that I would show my subjects in the US. And the people who are psychopathic did really bad recognizing the fear. One of the offenders missed every single fearful expression, which is that’s pretty bad, even for somebody whose pyschopathic, he knew he was doing badly because he got to the very last fearful expression of the set and he said, you know, I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know that’s what people look like right before you stab them.

K.B.:                          Okay.

A.M.:                         Right? I mean that’s intense. So he’s like, oh, I’ve seen that face before, and I even know when I’ve seen it when people believed that they were about to be seriously hurt or killed. I mean, imagine the mind that couldn’t come up with the feeling that accompanies that face, right? That’s a I mean, that’s a disability, it really is.

K.B.:                        Yeah, that’s right.

A.M.:                      And so it appears to be the case that being able to empathize with other people’s fear in particular is just a really powerful marker for your likelihood of experiencing compassion when other people are experiencing fear or other kinds of distress that are related to fear and sadness and pain or suffering.

K.B.:                     That has got to be very comforting for all the people out there right now who are on the frontlines of Covid doing difficult, emotionally, physically, costly jobs, to say man no, I am allowed to be afraid. I just happened to be moving toward the fear.

A.M.:                    Right. There’s this weird belief out there that to be virtuous, you have to not feel fear. And it’s like no, no, no you should fear. Fear is an important messenger. You shouldn’t assume it’s the truth. Right? Because everybody knows people and most of us have fears of things that are not really rational. But it’s a really important messenger and what it means to be courageous, and we’ve known this since Aristotle is knowing when the fear is less important than something that is a higher purpose.

K.B.:                       I love it when you describe the extremely altruistic. You describe them as super recognizers. Why did you pick that term? It’s perfect.

A.M.:                    Well, you know, the people I’ve studied who are the some of the most altruistic people that I or I think most people think of are people who donate kidneys to strangers. I thought for a while about who, you know, what’s the sort of most extraordinary form of altruism I could think of that would be a good candidate for being on the opposite end of this caring continuum from people who are psychopathic and altruistic kidney donors to me seemed like a perfect candidate. They have decided to give up the vital organ to save a stranger.

K.B.:                      So a friend of mine, Wajahat Ali.

A.M.:                      Oh, yeah. Yeah. So his daughter, Nusayba. She needed a living liver donor, and this complete stranger stepped up and he said that when this adorable stranger woke up from the surgery, he turned to his nurse and he said, I just want to know, like not when will I be able to get back to work or when can I do whatever he was like? When will I be able to give blood again? So what? Why? Explain this man. Your researcher can.

A.M.:                      Yeah, I actually I’ve, I’ve corresponded with that donor and he’s a lovely person.

K.B.:                    Oh wow.

A.M.:                    I’m always trying to emphasize how much I respect and value the opinion of people who are altruistic organ donors, liver or kidney, who very much believe that they’re normal people. That there’s nothing special about them. And yet the research that we’ve done suggests that that’s not true. That there is something. You know, the easiest way to understand the mind brain relationship is that the mind is what the brain does. And so any difference in a mind reflects some difference in a brain whether or not we can actually measure it. And so people who make a decision that’s very unusual, that’s very atypical for the average person, there probably is something different about their brain. And what we have found in the brain imaging research that I’ve done of altruistic kidney donors, is that their brains basically look the opposite of psychopathic brain’s, in addition to their behavior looking the opposite of the people who are psychopathic, they’re better at recognizing other people’s fear than the average person and not better recognizing everything. So this is a really important thing to know about empathy. Is that empathy for different states relies on different mechanisms. And so people who are very altruistic are actually less good at recognizing other’s anger.

K.B.:                          Huh?

A.M.:                      It’s pretty good to be a little insensitive to others anger. People who are too sensitive to other’s anger…

K.B.:                      I don’t know what you’re talking about, stop talking about me, please turn away. Direct your inquiry elsewhere.

A.M.:                      Yeah. It’s a little bit of a, you know, rose colored glasses sort of situation, but it’s good to be very sensitive to other people’s happiness. And it turns out it’s good to be very sensitive to other people’s fear as well. Simply recognizing that somebody else is afraid at all is again the most fundamental form of empathy. And so if you are able to detect that somebody is in distress, you’re much more likely to go to their assistance. And it seems to be the case that people who are very altruistic are more sensitive to other’s distress, in part because they have a larger amygdala, which is the structure in the brain that’s responsible for both the experience of fear and the ability to detect it in other people. Not in isolation, it’s part of a much bigger network. But without it, people usually don’t experience fear and don’t recognize it either.

K.B.:                        So they can recognize other people’s fear. They have larger amygdalas. I love that I know that now. And was there one more thing, too?

A.M.:                        Yeah. And their amygdala is more responsive to other people’s fear as well. And probably what we’re picking up on is some very rough approximation of some much more sophisticated stuff happening in the brain that we’re not able to detect yet. But, you know, the amygdala is also an incredibly important part, for example, of parenting network. The parental care network that mammals all have that motivates mammals to care for their offspring. And we know there’s a hormone called oxytocin that when it’s released in the amygdala, it seems to promote parental care in every mammalian species that there is. And so probably there’s something going on involving oxytocin in the amygdala of altruists, we just don’t know yet for sure.

K.B.:                         I’ll be sure to yell that at bedtime, be like I’m looking for some oxytocin when I’m at the very end of my rope. I really wanted to ask you about what you’d said about when you ask kidney donors about what they thought was interesting about themselves, like why you? Why would you do that? And they said nothing, really. I’m not that special. And that they just didn’t have hero complexes. And they seemed to believe something that we maybe all should, that we do belong to one another in some kind of bigger way.

A.M.:                        One of the really consistent things I hear with the altruistic kidney donors that I work with is how they just believe in other people, not naively like they’re not dupes, but they just assume that most other people have some sort of common humanity that makes them worth helping. You know, if I ask the ordinary person, like, why wouldn’t you donate a kidney to a stranger? They tend to say things like, well, along the lines what if that person didn’t deserve it somehow?

K.B.:                       I see.

A.M.:                     That just doesn’t come up for the donors. They just don’t believe that there is a person out there who doesn’t deserve to live. The idea is that if you believe that you’re more special and better than other people, then why would you give your kidneys to other people? Because you see, those kidneys should be promoting the specialist person there is’s health. And if it’s you, why would you give him away? Right. If you believe that other people are just as intrinsically important and valuable as yourself, then of course it makes sense that if something you have but could do without is going to help another person survive, of course you would want to give it away.

K.B.:                    Yes. There’s a wonderful duality to that thought. The everyone is special and no one is special at the same time.

A.M.:                  Everybody’s valuable, but nobody’s more valuable intrinsically. Nobody’s worth is intrinsically greater than anybody else’s.

K.B.:                  Yeah, that reminds me of first year philosophy class. Yes. Well, it’s reading your work and getting to know you, I think it’s such a beautiful example of where I mean, where great research can help us answer some of the questions of the reaches that people go. What physical difference accounts for that like, that sort of extra lily pad beyond what most of us would jump. But I think it makes a really beautiful space for us in the middle to know that we really can we really can grow toward a deeper sense of interdependence. But we do have to pay attention to our wiring.

A.M.:                   We do. We do. And I think the thing that gives me the most sort of optimism from having worked with the people I do is that they in general report a life that’s been spent sort of helping other people in various ways that ultimately leads to them donating a kidney. Nobody starts there. But helping other people is an incredibly self reinforcing process. Right. Bringing other people, joy, we know, brings more well-being than investing more resources in yourself. There is such good research to back that up. Isn’t that a lovely thing? That it’s self reinforcing. And so I get the sense that if you just start helping other people and become just aware of how much joy that it can bring, that doesn’t make it selfish ya know, I mean, to me, that’s intrinsic in the fact that we are altruistic. Is that helping other people brings us joy. That’s what it means to be altruistic.

K.B.:                    No, Abby, I like that.

A.M.:                   Although you know, what’s funny is I’ve worked a kidney donors who are like I’m the most selfish person you’re ever going to meet because I got so much joy that I still feel everyday from having given this person a kidney and knowing that somebody is alive who wouldn’t be without me.

K.B.:                  Well, then may we all have lives full of selfish people because that sounds really beautiful. Look, the world needs more nerdom and Dr. Marsh, I’m very impressed by yours. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

A.M.:                 It’s been a pleasure.

K.B.:                 The ability to really connect with another person feels like magic. Where do I end and you begin? Could it be that these extraordinary altruists know something that we should all remember? That we belong to one another in a way that spurs them to extraordinary acts of compassion and generosity, like people who opt in to getting their organs cut out of them for complete strangers or nurses who stay way after their shift ends to check in on a patient. Or, all those people who visit a family member long after dementia means they don’t know who you are anymore. Ordinary angels among us. The ones who recognize fear in themselves and others and move toward it with compassion. Maybe we won’t be able to fully answer the question of high or low anthropology, how good or bad we are intrinsically. But research like Abby’s comes pretty close to understanding this much: People are capable of so much evil and so much good. Sometimes it’s the way we’re wired, how big our amygdalas are or how much suffering we’ve encountered that has cracked us open to a hurting world. And most of us are somewhere in the middle. And we could all use a little more. More empathy toward the exhausted parents with kids who have a difficult diagnosis. Toward the teachers stretched beyond their technical skills. The chaplains who stand bedside by too many patients. The pastors trying to figure out how to minister in a time like this. The frontline workers paid so little to sacrifice so much, we can all develop a bit more compassion for people who are dissimilar from us, to see people expressing fear or distress and move toward them. Because that is the kind of love that makes the world go round.

K.B.:                         This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team. Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. So fun fact about the podcast world, your reviews matter. Would you mind taking a minute to write a review on Apple Podcast? It would mean so much.  This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.


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