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Tis better to give than receive”: oxytocin and dopamine

Jef­frey Gonce, a Psy­chol­o­gy teacher at Red Land High School (West Shore School Dis­trict, PA) just asked his stu­dents to “com­plete a project describ­ing a recent brain (or genet­ic) study that affects behav­ior.”  The stu­dents could opt to post their arti­cles online, and Jef­frey was kind enough to send us a link to read the results.

We enjoyed the over­all lev­el of the essays (you can read them all here), and tru­ly enjoyed read­ing a beau­ti­ful, well-researched and bet­ter writ­ten essay by Alexan­dra M, 15. Which, inci­den­tal­ly, quotes from one of our favourite pop­u­lar sci­ence books on the brain, John Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the Brain.



March 2, 2007

Alexan­dra M

It’s Christ­mas morn­ing, and your broth­er rush­es down­stairs to see what “San­ta” brought him. The morn­ing goes by in a flur­ry of col­or­ful wrap­ping paper and stringy rib­bons until all that’s left is a big present in the cen­ter of your brother’s lap. The present that “San­ta” brought him. As he rips open the paper, “Santa’s” chest swells with pride, he feels good and hap­py. As the broth­er runs around scream­ing about his new remote con­trolled F‑14 Tom­cat, “San­ta” laughs and cleans up. But why did he feel that way? He had maybe one to every five presents that his broth­er received. Why? Why does “San­ta” not feel jeal­ous? Researchers have found that giv­ing a present to anoth­er being actu­al­ly feels bet­ter than receiv­ing the gift. They used an fMRI and stud­ied nine­teen peo­ple play a game and either received or donat­ed mon­ey that they won. The brain, more impor­tant­ly, our unique frontal lobes, are evolv­ing quick­er due to giv­ing from our hearts to oth­er beings. Jor­dan Graf­man, the leader of this hap­py project, asked nine­teen fit vol­un­teers to par­tic­i­pate in a com­put­er game while hav­ing their brains scanned by an fMRI. An fMRI is a machine that scans the brain for increased blood flow to the dif­fer­ent blood ves­sels that accom­pa­ny brain usage. The game gave out cash rewards and at the same time asked for dona­tions to char­i­ties. They saw, because of the fMRI, that the struc­tures that lit up when peo­ple received mon­ey were the ones that released Dopamine. Dopamine is a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter that asso­ciates with hap­pi­ness and reward. “Dopamine may be the link between reward­ing sen­sa­tions of plea­sure and long term mem­o­ry” (Ratey). But the inter­est­ing thing was that when some­one gave to a char­i­ty, the same places lit up and were more stim­u­lat­ed then when peo­ple receive rewards. This also acti­vat­ed a cer­tain type of neu­ro­trans­mit­ter. A neu­ro­trans­mit­ter is a chem­i­cal mes­sen­ger from one neu­ron to anoth­er. This neu­ro­trans­mit­ter is known as Oxy­tocin. Oxy­tocin is a “cud­dle” neu­ro­trans­mit­ter found every­where. “…Oxy­tocin is the attach­ment phase between the male and female” (Ratey). They found that the activ­i­ty in the pre­frontal cor­tex, some­thing com­plete­ly unique to the human race, was busier when peo­ple made very large dona­tions. The pre­frontal cor­tex is the part of the brain that is involved in rea­son­ing and deci­sion-mak­ing. The most sig­nif­i­cant part of the research was that they fig­ured out that donat­ing is a learned behav­ior. “Work­ing mem­o­ry is a sig­nif­i­cant part of the exec­u­tive func­tion­ing of the pre­frontal cor­tex” (Ratey). “Tis bet­ter to give than receive” is one of the most famous vers­es in the Chris­t­ian New Tes­ta­ment, and now it has been proven. Jor­dan Graf­man and his team of sci­en­tists have found that giv­ing a present to anoth­er being actu­al­ly feels bet­ter than receiv­ing a gift from one. Giv­ing a gift acti­vates your Dopamine and Oxy­tocin releasers, and prefrontal/frontal lobes and even evolves some of these areas. In the future, we could see if how much we give makes a dif­fer­ence in how much Dopamine or Oxy­tocin is released into our bod­ies. We could learn to share in a way that would make every­one feel as hap­py as giv­ing or receiv­ing the gift.


o Gramza, Joyce. “Tis Bet­ter to Give than Receive.” Sci­en­Cen­tral Video. 10/17/2006 NINDS and NIH. 2/20/2007

o Ratey, John J. A User’s Guide to the Brain. New York: Vin­tage Books, Copy­right 1994.

Any sug­ges­tions or feed­back for Jef­frey and Alexan­dra?

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12 Responses

  1. Alexandra says:

    Thanks! I’m glad you liked it!

    I was just read­ing through my essay and wished that I could have seen some of the sil­ly gram­mat­i­cal errors that I see now. Oh well.

    I was real­ly excit­ed when Mr. Gonce told me what hap­pened, because I want to be a doc­tor when I grow up. A Psy­chol­o­gist is my sec­ond career/major I’m think­ing about. So to have a school psych paper published.…well it says tons! 😉 Thank you again for pub­lish­ing my essay!

    ~Alexan­dra Moody

    P.S Oh and I got 8.5 extra cred­it points which made my grade a 108.5% on my paper.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hola Alexan­dra:

    As you can imag­ine, pub­lish­ing your essay may well have released some
    dopamin and oxy­tocin in my own brain, so thank you too 🙂

    The essay is great as it is. The only sug­ges­tion I would make is
    mak­ing more clear para­graphs, so the text is more eas­i­ly digestible.
    But it is sim­ply great what you have writ­ten-and it sug­gests you will
    have good options to choose from when you grad­u­ate from high school.
    Until then, keep learn­ing and doing such a great job!

    Ah, and of course let me know if you write oth­er good essays! we’d be
    hap­py to con­sid­er them for pub­li­ca­tion, too.

  3. Kaylene Wance says:

    alex you did a won­der­ful job and i enjoyed the use of your broth­er and your dad. sad­ly i can say that my sis­ter will nev­er be in my papers because i think it would cause chaos.

    on anoth­er note you have giv­en me a great idea on what to do with my paper.


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