Altruism and philanthropy align, research suggests

Donation processing is often said to be the lifeblood of a charitable organization, but people often overlook the common value that connects nonprofit workers together: affection.

While some say general acts of kindness are a means to an end, others believe it's a hereditary quality that drives people to give on a regular basis. The general motivation for giving remains to be seen, but recent research suggests that individuals are genetically predisposed to a have generous disposition. 

In using cutting-edge medical techniques such as neurological mapping, scientists are beginning to identify the specific areas in the brain that are associated with altruistic tendencies, The Wall Street Journal reported. The age-old debate of whether or not humans are generous by nature is beginning to shift thanks in part to a slowly growing body of data in a new field of research called epigenetics. The basic premise of the maturing area of interest is to provide further insight into the nature vs. nurture debate and whether or not social and cultural mores affect our everyday behavior.

New field of research 
Epigenetics is still in an embryonic stage in regards to depth of study, but recent research suggests that individual behavior may not only be influenced by our static DNA sequences of our genetic makeup, but also by molecular processes that alter the expression of these genes based on changes in their environment, according to the Genetic Literacy Project. In layman's terms, kindness may be genetic, and our social and cultural surroundings are likely drivers in generous behavior. 

Steve Cole, a professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles's School of Medicine is one of the first scholarly minds to delve into the subject of epigenetics. His research, which is some of the first in the converging fields of genetics and psychology, has focused on the effects social isolation has on the genes that control the immune system. 

Cole, along with his colleague John Capioppo, a social psychologist from the University of Chicago, studied the blood of self-described lonely and socially well-off individuals in Chicago in 2007, the GLP recently reported. Although there were only 14 participants, the results were particularly telling in that 1 percent of their genomes showed different patterns of expression as a result of environmental interactions. After numerous studies and years of research, Cole believes that socially isolated people are often less healthy due to an abnormally reacting immune system. 

Cole's research parallels that of recent findings by neurologist Jordan Grafman in that altruistic actions were found to stimulate certain areas of the brain. More specifically, the Wall Street Journal reported that when Dr. Grafman's subjects chose to donate money to a hypothetical charity of their choosing, areas in their brain associated with social bonding showed activity.

Altruism and philanthropy have always been linked, but preliminary research shows that genuine kindness may in fact be rooted in the human brain. Dr. Grafman's research found that parts of the midbrain lit up when subjects were asked about giving - the same areas of the brain that are associated with controlling cravings for food and libido, the WSJ added. Humans may actually be hardwired to give and help others, which could explain recent nonprofit industry growth.

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