The Helper’s High: The Neurobiology of Helping Others

Tannya Jajal
9 min readJun 17, 2018

“There are so many people who say that nature is savage, that if we could rid ourselves of social constraints we would become animals and literally eat each other alive. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. There are sides of us that are quite brutal and selfish, but nature has given us many gifts among them something known as the helper’s high: the neurobiology of helping others.”

— Jason Silva on “The Helper’s High”.

It’s an age old quandary: are we inherently selfish?

The examination of human nature, notwithstanding environmental factors, has been of long-time interest to neuroscientists and psychologists. Is civilization a smokescreen for our basic, inhumane impulses?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that we’re inherently selfish beings. A famous thought experiment, known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is an oft-cited hypothetical that academics use to demonstrate the impulse we have to act in our self-interest. The Prisoner’s Dilemma involves two individuals that are given certain cooperative and competitive options.

Imagine that you and an accomplice have been arrested for robbing a bank. Unbeknownst to the other and while in complete isolation, the authorities give each of you the following options:

a) If you confess, and your accomplice remains silent, all charges against you will be dropped, and your partner will be put away for time

b) If you remain silent, but your partner confesses, then your partner will go free, while you end up in prison

c) If you both confess, you will both be convicted, but you’ll get an early parole.

d) If you both remain silent, you’ll serve a small sentence for possession of firearms.

Clearly, the best — and perhaps safest — outcome for either prisoner is for both to remain silent and for both to serve the minimum time for possession of firearms. However, game theory tells us…