Extreme Altruism And The Amygdala

Yesterday I had the absolute pleasure of hearing Stephanie Preston from the University of Michigan summarise neuroscience research subway-scene-04being carried through grants made by the Templeton Foundation of the University of Pennsylvania. She was speaking on the third day of the International Positive Psychology Conference in Los Angeles. The Templeton Foundation was set up to fund research projects involving positive psychology and neuroscience. I walked out of this session with goose bumps. (Yes I know – I need to get out more!).

Over the coming months I am really excited to share with you various pieces of research and insights from this session and the rest of the conference (as well as another conference and trainings I have attended in the last few weeks. A range of topics will be covered that will help us all live the greatest possible life! Hope you enjoy these blogs).

I chose this topic to begin with as it relates to last week’s post on infinite altruism

Extreme Altruism

Scientists are currently studying extreme (or heroic) altruism.

Extreme altruists are people who donate an organ to another or perform a heroic act of altruism for a stranger. Extreme altruistics deeply sense the feelings and concerns of others, and act on these feelings.

What would you do for someone else?

Would you donate a kidney or part of your liver?

Would you dive off a train platform to save a stranger from a moving train, leaving your 4 and 6 year old daughters watching on the platform?

Wesley Autrey did.

Wesley Autrey, a 50-year old construction worker, was standing on a subway platform in New York City, with his two daughters, when a man, Cameron Hollopeter, suddenly collapsed, in the throes of an epileptic seizure. Two women helped Cameron up but he stumbled and fell on the tracks in front of a fast approaching train.

Wesley made a split second decision to jump and save the convulsing man from harm, without regard to his own safety. Wesley jumped on and pressed Cameron down into a small space between the tracks. The train went over the top of them, missing them by inches. Eventually the train stopped and both men got out relatively unharmed. Cameron only suffered a few cuts and bruises and Wesley insisted he was fine. Wesley didn’t think he did anything special. He said he just saw someone who needed help and he did what he felt was right.

Neuroscience and Positive Psychology

Abigail A. Marsh, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Georgetown University, recently discovered that people like Wesley have different brains. Their amygdala is larger. Consistent with these findings, other research has also found that psychopaths have smaller amygdalas and are therefore less able to empathise with others.

The Amygdala

The Amygdala is an almond shaped collection of nuclei within the temporal lobe of the brain. The temporal lobe is located on the left and right hemispheres. It stretches from the front to the back of the brain, just above / around your ears. The Amygdala plays a large role in memory and emotional responses.

Look After Your Amygdala

The amygdala is commonly known for its role in the fight and flight response. New research suggests it has a much larger role than this. Over the coming weeks I will fill you in on a few different roles the amygdala plays according to the latest neuroscience discoveries. In the meantime look after your amygdala – it’s looking after you!

Neuroplasticity and the Amygdala

The exciting news is that neuroplasticity is not letting us down in the amygdala stakes either. They have found that children who have suffered emotional neglect have been able to rewire their brains and create new neural pathways. So no matter what the size of your amygdala, you can build it up like a muscle.

Keep building your Amygdala!

Please share any extreme altruism stories you know or have been involved in.



  1. So how to best “Keep building your Amygdala” very interesting or indeed how to keep it more functional? great Blog thanks Caryn

  2. Caryn,

    I participated in Professor Marsh’s study. – In Oct. 2010 I anonymously donated my left kidney to Seatlle Childrens Hospital. The operation was performed at the University of Washington Medical Center.
    It has been the most treasured experience I have ever had – I would do it again in a heart beat.

    • Hi Max,

      Thanks for sharing your story. That is wonderful to hear how your courage has led to not only saving a life but enhancing an others’ life. Wow! What an experience. The world is a better place for having you!


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