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  • There's a man out there, somewhere,

  • who looks a little bit like the actor Idris Elba,

  • or at least he did 20 years ago.

  • I don't know anything else about him,

  • except that he once saved my life

  • by putting his own life in danger.

  • This man ran across four lanes of freeway traffic in the middle of the night

  • to bring me back to safety

  • after a car accident that could have killed me.

  • And the whole thing left me really shaken up, obviously,

  • but it also left me with this kind of burning, gnawing need

  • to understand why he did it,

  • what forces within him caused him to make the choice

  • that I owe my life to,

  • to risk his own life to save the life of a stranger?

  • In other words, what are the causes of his or anybody else's capacity for altruism?

  • But first let me tell you what happened.

  • That night, I was 19 years old

  • and driving back to my home in Tacoma, Washington,

  • down the Interstate 5 freeway,

  • when a little dog darted out in front of my car.

  • And I did exactly what you're not supposed to do,

  • which is swerve to avoid it.

  • And I discovered why you're not supposed to do that.

  • I hit the dog anyways,

  • and that sent the car into a fishtail,

  • and then a spin across the freeway,

  • until finally it wound up in the fast lane of the freeway

  • faced backwards into oncoming traffic

  • and then the engine died.

  • And I was sure in that moment that I was about to die too,

  • but I didn't

  • because of the actions of that one brave man

  • who must have made the decision

  • within a fraction of a second of seeing my stranded car

  • to pull over and run across four lanes of freeway traffic

  • in the dark

  • to save my life.

  • And then after he got my car working again

  • and got me back to safety and made sure I was going to be all right,

  • he drove off again.

  • He never even told me his name,

  • and I'm pretty sure I forgot to say thank you.

  • So before I go any further,

  • I really want to take a moment

  • to stop and say thank you to that stranger.

  • (Applause)

  • I tell you all of this

  • because the events of that night changed the course of my life to some degree.

  • I became a psychology researcher,

  • and I've devoted my work to understanding the human capacity to care for others.

  • Where does it come from, and how does it develop,

  • and what are the extreme forms that it can take?

  • These questions are really important to understanding basic aspects

  • of human social nature.

  • A lot of people, and this includes everybody

  • from philosophers and economists to ordinary people

  • believe that human nature is fundamentally selfish,

  • that we're only ever really motivated by our own welfare.

  • But if that's true, why do some people, like the stranger who rescued me,

  • do selfless things, like helping other people

  • at enormous risk and cost to themselves?

  • Answering this question

  • requires exploring the roots of extraordinary acts of altruism,

  • and what might make people who engage in such acts

  • different than other people.

  • But until recently, very little work on this topic had been done.

  • The actions of the man who rescued me

  • meet the most stringent definition of altruism,

  • which is a voluntary, costly behavior

  • motivated by the desire to help another individual.

  • So it's a selfless act intended to benefit only the other.

  • What could possibly explain an action like that?

  • One answer is compassion, obviously,

  • which is a key driver of altruism.

  • But then the question becomes,

  • why do some people seem to have more of it than others?

  • And the answer may be that the brains of highly altruistic people

  • are different in fundamental ways.

  • But to figure out how,

  • I actually started from the opposite end,

  • with psychopaths.

  • A common approach to understanding basic aspects of human nature,

  • like the desire to help other people,

  • is to study people in whom that desire is missing,

  • and psychopaths are exactly such a group.

  • Psychopathy is a developmental disorder

  • with strongly genetic origins,

  • and it results in a personality that's cold and uncaring

  • and a tendency to engage in antisocial and sometimes very violent behavior.

  • Once my colleagues and I at the National Institute of Mental Health

  • conducted some of the first ever brain imaging research

  • of psychopathic adolescents,

  • and our findings, and the findings of other researchers now,

  • have shown that people who are psychopathic

  • pretty reliably exhibit three characteristics.

  • First, although they're not generally insensitive to other people's emotions,

  • they are insensitive to signs that other people are in distress.

  • And in particular,

  • they have difficulty recognizing fearful facial expressions like this one.

  • And fearful expressions convey urgent need and emotional distress,

  • and they usually elicit compassion and a desire to help

  • in people who see them,

  • so it makes sense that people who tend to lack compassion

  • also tend to be insensitive to these cues.

  • The part of the brain

  • that's the most important for recognizing fearful expressions

  • is called the amygdala.

  • There are very rare cases of people who lack amygdalas completely,

  • and they're profoundly impaired in recognizing fearful expressions.

  • And whereas healthy adults and children

  • usually show big spikes in amygdala activity

  • when they look at fearful expressions,

  • psychopaths' amygdalas are underreactive to these expressions.

  • Sometimes they don't react at all,

  • which may be why they have trouble detecting these cues.

  • Finally, psychopaths' amygdalas are smaller than average

  • by about 18 or 20 percent.

  • So all of these findings are reliable and robust,

  • and they're very interesting.

  • But remember that my main interest

  • is not understanding why people don't care about others.

  • It's understanding why they do.

  • So the real question is,

  • could extraordinary altruism,

  • which is the opposite of psychopathy

  • in terms of compassion and the desire to help other people,

  • emerge from a brain that is also the opposite of psychopathy?

  • A sort of antipsychopathic brain,

  • better able to recognize other people's fear,

  • an amygdala that's more reactive to this expression

  • and maybe larger than average as well?

  • As my research has now shown,

  • all three things are true.

  • And we discovered this

  • by testing a population of truly extraordinary altruists.

  • These are people who have given one of their own kidneys

  • to a complete stranger.

  • So these are people who have volunteered to undergo major surgery

  • so that one of their own healthy kidneys can be removed

  • and transplanted into a very ill stranger

  • that they've never met and may never meet.

  • "Why would anybody do this?" is a very common question.

  • And the answer may be

  • that the brains of these extraordinary altruists

  • have certain special characteristics.

  • They are better at recognizing other people's fear.

  • They're literally better at detecting when somebody else is in distress.

  • This may be in part because their amygdala is more reactive to these expressions.

  • And remember, this is the same part of the brain that we found

  • was underreactive in people who are psychopathic.

  • And finally, their amygdalas are larger than average as well,

  • by about eight percent.

  • So together, what these data suggest

  • is the existence of something like a caring continuum in the world

  • that's anchored at the one end by people who are highly psychopathic,

  • and at the other by people who are very compassionate

  • and driven to acts of extreme altruism.

  • But I should add that what makes extraordinary altruists so different

  • is not just that they're more compassionate than average.

  • They are,

  • but what's even more unusual about them

  • is that they're compassionate and altruistic

  • not just towards people who are in their own innermost circle

  • of friends and family. Right?

  • Because to have compassion for people that you love and identify with

  • is not extraordinary.

  • Truly extraordinary altruists' compassion extends way beyond that circle,

  • even beyond their wider circle of acquaintances

  • to people who are outside their social circle altogether,

  • total strangers,

  • just like the man who rescued me.

  • And I've had the opportunity now to ask a lot of altruistic kidney donors

  • how it is that they manage to generate such a wide circle of compassion

  • that they were willing to give a complete stranger their kidney.

  • And I found it's a really difficult question for them to answer.

  • I say, "How is it that you're willing to do this thing

  • when so many other people don't?

  • You're one of fewer than 2,000 Americans

  • who has ever given a kidney to a stranger.

  • What is it that makes you so special?"

  • And what do they say?

  • They say, "Nothing.

  • There's nothing special about me.

  • I'm just the same as everybody else."

  • And I think that's actually a really telling answer,

  • because it suggests that the circles of these altruists don't look like this,

  • they look more like this.

  • They have no center.

  • These altruists literally don't think of themselves

  • as being at the center of anything,

  • as being better or more inherently important than anybody else.

  • When I asked one altruist why donating her kidney made sense to her,

  • she said, "Because it's not about me."

  • Another said,

  • "I'm not different. I'm not unique.

  • Your study here is going to find out that I'm just the same as you."

  • I think the best description for this amazing lack of self-centeredness

  • is humility,

  • which is that quality that in the words of St. Augustine

  • makes men as angels.

  • And why is that?

  • It's because if there's no center of your circle,

  • there can be no inner rings or outer rings,

  • nobody who is more or less worthy of your care and compassion

  • than anybody else.

  • And I think that this is what really distinguishes extraordinary altruists

  • from the average person.

  • But I also think that this is a view of the world that's attainable by many

  • and maybe even most people.

  • And I think this because at the societal level,

  • expansions of altruism and compassion are already happening everywhere.

  • The psychologist Steven Pinker and others have shown

  • that all around the world people are becoming less and less accepting

  • of suffering in ever-widening circles of others,

  • which has led to declines of all kinds of cruelty and violence,

  • from animal abuse to domestic violence to capital punishment.

  • And it's led to increases in all kinds of altruism.

  • A hundred years ago, people would have thought it was ludicrous

  • how normal and ordinary it is

  • for people to donate their blood and bone marrow

  • to complete strangers today.

  • Is it possible that a hundred years from now

  • people will think that donating a kidney to a stranger

  • is just as normal and ordinary

  • as we think donating blood and bone marrow is today?

  • Maybe.

  • So what's at the root of all these amazing changes?

  • In part it seems to be

  • increases in wealth and standards of living.

  • As societies become wealthier and better off,

  • people seem to turn their focus of attention outward,

  • and as a result, all kinds of altruism towards strangers increases,

  • from volunteering to charitable donations and even altruistic kidney donations.

  • But all of these changes also yield

  • a strange and paradoxical result,

  • which is that even as the world is becoming a better and more humane place,

  • which it is,

  • there's a very common perception that it's becoming worse

  • and more cruel, which it's not.

  • And I don't know exactly why this is,

  • but I think it may be that we now just know so much more

  • about the suffering of strangers in distant places,

  • and so we now care a lot more

  • about the suffering of those distant strangers.

  • But what's clear is the kinds of changes we're seeing show

  • that the roots of altruism and compassion

  • are just as much a part of human nature as cruelty and violence,

  • maybe even more so,

  • and while some people do seem to be inherently more sensitive

  • to the suffering of distant others,

  • I really believe that the ability to remove oneself

  • from the center of the circle