Giving support contributes to the link between social ties and health; however, the neural mechanisms are not known. Giving support in humans may rely on neural regions implicated in parental care in animals. The current studies, therefore, assess the contribution of parental care–related neural regions to giving support in humans and, as a further theoretical test, examine whether the benefits of giving targeted support to single, identifiable individuals in need extend to giving untargeted support to larger societal causes.
For study 1 (n = 45, M (SD) age = 21.98 (3.29), 69% females), participants completed a giving support task, followed by an emotional faces task in the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. For study 2 (n = 382, M (SD) age = 43.03 (7.28), 52% females), participants self-reported on their giving support behavior and completed an emotional faces task in the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner.
In study 1, giving targeted (versus untargeted) support resulted in greater feelings of social connection and support effectiveness. Furthermore, greater septal area activity, a region centrally involved in parental care in animals, to giving targeted support was associated with less right amygdala activity to an emotional faces task (r = −.297, 95% confidence interval = −.547 to −.043). Study 2 replicated and extended this association to show that self-reports of giving targeted support were associated with less amygdala activity to a different emotional faces task, even when adjusting for other social factors (r = −.105, 95% confidence interval = −.200 to −.011). Giving untargeted support was not related to amygdala activity in either study.
Results highlight the unique benefits of giving targeted support and elucidate neural pathways by which giving support may lead to health.