What Happens in Your Brain and Body When You Witness Human Kindness

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Parks and Recreation.Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

It is just plain nice to witness those rare moments when people show real kindness to each other, and psychologists have a phrase for that: It’s called moral elevation, that warm-and-fuzzy feeling you get from simply witnessing compassion. Scientists know that moral elevation tends to nudge people toward behaving more altruistically themselves, and now some new research has helped explain this effect by recording what happens inside the brain and body when we see a little bit of niceness occur. 

In a post for the Greater Good Science Center’s website, writer Jill Suttie explains the study’s findings. The researchers, led by Walter Piper at New York University, showed study participants either a film clip in which someone took care of someone else after an incidence of suffering, or one that was just supposed to be funny. They recorded the participants’ heart rate in order to get an idea of what their sympathetic nervous system (which promotes arousal, known colloquially as the “fight or flight” system) was doing, and also measured the activity level of the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes rest, including slowing of the heart rate). 

They observed increased activity in both systems when the participants viewed the moral-elevation videos, but the funny clip didn’t activate either nervous system. Suttie explains what this might mean:

Dual activation of the PNS and SNS occurs in situations that involve attending to others in a prosocial way while also needing to stay alert and aroused, such as during parenting and sexual activity. Moral elevation must involve a similar pattern, which makes some sense: To see a compassionate act, we must witness suffering, and that’s stressful [and activates the SNS]. However, once we see the suffering alleviated through an altruistic act, it calms our heart (through the PNS), allowing us to get past the stress and give us that pleasant, warm glow feeling. This feeling is probably what calms our hearts enough to give us the motivation to “pay it forward” by acting altruistically in the future.

In other words, scientists are a step closer to understanding why — on a physiological level — niceness can be contagious