Neuroscience of Altruism • Dr. Abigail Marsh

Summary

What makes some people more generous than others? And when it comes to altruism, how do we get more of it? In this episode, we learn about how altruism works in the brain, and the clues are surprisingly found in how psychopaths experience fear. Neuroscientist and professor Abigail Marsh will tell us what she’s learned about altruism and the human brain.

About Our Guest

Abigail Marsh is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University. She received her BA in Psychology from Dartmouth College in 1999 and her PhD in Social Psychology at Harvard University in 2004. Before Georgetown, she conducted post-doctoral work at the NIMH from 2004-2008. Her areas of expertise include social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism, aggression, and psychopathy. 

Useful Links

Her book: The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Psychopaths, Altruists, and Everyone In-Between

Published by Dr. Marsh in 2017 “What is responsible for the extremes of generosity and cruelty humans are capable of? By putting psychopathic children and extreme altruists in an fMRI, acclaimed psychologist Abigail Marsh found that the answer lies in how our brain responds to others’ fear. While the brain’s amygdala makes most of us hardwired for good, its variations can explain heroic and psychopathic behavior.”

TED Talk: Abigail Marsh asks an essential question in her TED talk: If humans are evil, Why do we sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to help others even at a cost to ourselves?

Google Scholar: Has over 8500 citations from Abigail Marsh.

Twitter: Follow Dr. Marsh @aa_Marsh

Other Resources

Matthieu Ricard: Points out that empathy on its own can lead to fatigue and burnout.

Michael Krauss: Research shows that increased wealth can actually reduce empathy and altruism.

David DeSteno: People who’ve experienced significant trauma or natural disasters themselves benefit from self-efficacy, which gives them the confidence to know what to do in a situation they are familiar with.

More about Merit Leadership

Business Ethics Field Guide: The ability to clarify individual and organizational values and to find a way forward when these values conflict. This book will help you develop those skills and apply them in your organization to become a better leader.

Classroom In Box: Do you teach ethics? Whether it’s in a university, school, company, or agency you know how difficult it can be. Merit Leadership has compiled decades of award-winning experience teaching ethics and created lesson plans, videos, exercises, and assignments all in an online resource that’s easy to use.

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Transcript
Aaron:

You know, it's funny because I, I was telling my wife just last night, you

Aaron:

know, I have disagreements with adults all the time and we always work it out.

Aaron:

In fact, there's one associate that I work with.

Aaron:

We have a disagreement once a week.

Aaron:

You know, we always, but we always work it through and

Aaron:

figure it out and see eye to eye.

Aaron:

And I was like, why is it so much harder with teenagers?

Aaron:

But it's just, I mean, obviously I'm talking about one particular

Aaron:

teenager, but you get,

Abby:

I do.

Abby:

I do.

Abby:

Yeah.

Abby:

And I, you know, I feel like it's, I'm not a clinician myself, but

Abby:

I've done some of the interviews.

Abby:

So it is, it's much easier to be than when you're not related to them.

Abby:

You know?

Abby:

Like I find teenagers, a true joy.

Abby:

I really enjoy talking to teenagers once they start opening up.

Abby:

Right.

Abby:

If you buy, if you, if you convinced them that you're clearly just

Abby:

interested in them and you just find their experiences interesting.

Abby:

And you're not going to like tell their parents what they said, then,

Abby:

uh, I just find them so interesting.

Aaron Narration:

I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast

Aaron Narration:

about having a life and career of meaning, virtue, and impact.

Aaron Narration:

This is season one, episode two, The Neuroscience of Altruism,

Aaron Narration:

How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The

Aaron Narration:

Business Ethics Field Guide.

Aaron Narration:

If you're like me.

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And let me just say that in this regard, the vast majority of you are like me.

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You've never woken up some morning and said to yourself, you know what?

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I have two kidneys.

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I really only need one kidney.

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I'm going to give the extra kidney to a total and complete stranger.

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Now the reason I know that almost all of you haven't done this before is because we

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know how many have it's usually around two to 300 people a year before the early two

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thousands, the number was basically zero.

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So this is still a relatively rare thing to donate a kidney to a stranger.

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And yet the financial cost to a donor is basically zero.

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And the health risk is also very low.

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You'd have to stay in the hospital for a couple of days, but you'd be

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back to normal in just a few weeks, of course, the recipient of a kidney

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gets an entirely new lease on life.

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And many years longer to live for many of us, it would be among the most high-impact

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things that we could do with the amount of time and effort that's involved.

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So why do some people donate kidneys while most of us don't?

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This was the question that Dr.

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Abigail Marsh and her colleagues have started to answer.

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By looking at the neurological profile of these kidney donors, whom Dr.

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Marsh calls extreme altruists and comparing that with the rest of us.

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In studying this, she and her colleagues have revealed a lot about

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altruism, how it works in the brain, what is really going on in our head

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that makes us want to help people.

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What makes extreme altruist different than everyone else.

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And when it comes to altruism, how do we get more of it?

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Dr.

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Marsh is my guest for this episode.

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She's a Harvard trained neuroscientist and a professor of psychology at

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Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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She's also the author of the Fear Factor, a fantastic book that we'll be covering

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in this episode, before we get into the neuroscience of altruism, I thought

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it would help to have more context.

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I asked Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh about misconceptions that people have about the study of our brains,

Abby:

The biggest one, and I find this to be a problem when I'm communicating

Abby:

with everybody from undergraduates to, you know, physicians with 30

Abby:

years of experience is that every psychological phenomenon is also,

Abby:

a neurological phenomenon, right?

Abby:

There's every psychological phenomenon has some corresponding process

Abby:

in the brain that supports it.

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And if you knocked out that the part of the brain that's involved,

Abby:

that psychological process would disappear or be grossly affected.

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And I don't know why this is an issue that is so perennial, but I think it.

Abby:

Once you start thinking about psychology this way as the, my favorite

Abby:

way of describing the relationship between the mind and the brain is

Abby:

the mind is what the brain does.

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And I heard this from one of my mentors, Dan Gilbert at Harvard, but I don't know

Abby:

who actually originally came up with it.

Abby:

And that's really the easiest way to put it.

Abby:

Anything that's happening in your mind is also happening in your brain,

Abby:

because that is what the mind is.

Abby:

It's just the output of the brains activity.

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We can't always measure the brain activity that corresponds to

Abby:

especially really complex psychological phenomenon, but it's always there.

Abby:

And so when people ask me about things like altruism or psychopathy or empathy.

Abby:

It's always very flushing of a neural process.

Aaron Narration:

This explanation by Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh immediately gets us into some pretty deep philosophical waters.

Aaron Narration:

If every thought or idea personality, quirk can be identified as a physical

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process in the brain, then are we really choosing or our brains just

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hardwired to make decisions for us?

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That phrase hardwired is probably one you've heard before, or

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maybe even you've used it.

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You've probably also heard of brain plasticity.

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The idea that our brains can adapt or change.

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I asked Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh to explain these two things and how they relate.

Abby:

I also hear people talk about the brain, even though there's, I

Abby:

think people really understand a lot about the idea of plasticity in the

Abby:

brain, how the brain is not a fixed phenomenon, like a car, but it's

Abby:

constantly rewiring and retooling itself in response to environmental inputs.

Abby:

So every time you learn something or every time you form a new memory,

Abby:

your brain has changed structurally in a little tiny microscopic way.

Abby:

That again, we can't measure very well by that experience.

Abby:

So every experience changes your brain.

Abby:

And if an experience causes you to then have new emotions in the

Abby:

future, or to respond differently in the future or if it changes you in

Abby:

any way, it has changed your brain.

Abby:

That is the way that the emotion affected you or that the experience affected you.

Abby:

And so I think that's also really important to remember

Abby:

that the brain, almost nothing in the brain is truly hard wired.

Abby:

The brain is able to change itself in response to experience

Abby:

throughout the lifespan.

Abby:

And so when I talk about phenomena like altruism or psychopathy,

Abby:

corresponding to differences in the brain, I think unfortunately,

Abby:

sometimes that gets misinterpreted as, Oh, well, then psychopathy is hard

Abby:

wired in the brain, which it's not.

Aaron Narration:

Psychopathy by the way, is the word for the category of

Aaron Narration:

mental illness that's experienced by psychopaths and it like altruism and

Aaron Narration:

all kinds of other attributes is not fixed in the brain, which means no

Aaron Narration:

one is fated just because of how their brain works to live a psychopathic life

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or an altruistic one for that matter.

Aaron Narration:

We're headed into a deeper discussion of psychopathy and altruism.

Aaron Narration:

So this context is really important.

Aaron Narration:

It's the way the brain processes altruism that drew Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh to this field and drives her research now.

Aaron Narration:

Neuroscience provides an especially powerful lens.

Abby:

My initial interest in neuroscience was in part because, I'd felt so

Abby:

frustrated in trying to answer the questions I wanted to answer using just

Abby:

laboratories psychological approaches.

Abby:

My core interest is in trying to understand the basis the origin.

Abby:

The way it's possible for compassion and caring about

Abby:

other people to emerge, right?

Abby:

What is it that allows us to be able to care for other people, uh, presuming

Abby:

we do, which I believe that we do.

Abby:

And there's no way to answer that question without eventually get into

Abby:

the neuroscience of it, because of course, again, the phenomenon of

Abby:

compassion is the result of something happening in the brain, which we

Abby:

don't quite understand what it is yet.

Abby:

And I was trying to understand empathy, altruism, and aggression, to some extent

Abby:

in my graduate studies, through laboratory tasks, you know, where I'd give people the

Abby:

opportunity to donate money to somebody who sad story they'd heard in a recording.

Abby:

The sad story of course, was retold by me and.

Abby:

You can learn interesting and useful things that way.

Abby:

I would never say we should not have laboratory studies, but it's really hard

Abby:

to know how well they connect to the big, interesting kinds of behavior we see in

Abby:

the real world, you know, life-saving heroic, rescues, and that sort of thing.

Abby:

And I felt like you needed to try new techniques.

Abby:

If you wanted to really think big about the origins of altruism.

Aaron Narration:

Why the interest in altruism instead

Aaron Narration:

of some other human attribute?

Aaron Narration:

Well, that goes back to an experience that Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh had as a teenager, I'm going to paraphrase it from her book.

Aaron Narration:

But you really just need to read it there, or you can hear her tell it in her Ted

Aaron Narration:

talk, thanks to both her in the show notes, but this is what happened, Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh, or I'm going to call her Abby for this story was driving

Aaron Narration:

home from Seattle to Tacoma.

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After hanging out with a friend, it was a clear summer night around

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midnight on interstate five, suddenly.

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A dog ran out and cross right in front of her.

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She swerved of course.

Aaron Narration:

And the SUV that she was driving, went into a fish tail.

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The car spun around violently became to a halt without hitting anything.

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She was unharmed, but she couldn't have ended up in a more precarious position.

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She found her so stopped in the fast lane facing oncoming traffic.

Aaron Narration:

An arched over pass meant that any approaching cars wouldn't be able

Aaron Narration:

to see her until it was too late.

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The engine was dead.

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Every indicator, light was flashing and try as she might, she couldn't

Aaron Narration:

get the SUV to start up again.

Aaron Narration:

It was only a matter of time before a car or even a semi-truck plowed into her.

Aaron Narration:

And that's when he came, a stranger who came out of nowhere

Aaron Narration:

and was knocking on her window.

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This was a rough part of town too.

Aaron Narration:

So his appearance made Abby even more anxious, but he took command of the

Aaron Narration:

situation with a smooth confidence.

Aaron Narration:

He took her place in the driver's seat, started the car

Aaron Narration:

and navigated her to safety.

Aaron Narration:

When he got out of the car, he made sure that she felt confident driving the rest

Aaron Narration:

the way home, then he drove off in his own car, no name, no other connection to make.

Aaron Narration:

She's never seen him again since that night, but I'm curious...

Abby:

A need for any.

Abby:

Follow-up or anything on my part, which now having done this kind of

Abby:

work for a decade, I, I recognize a lot of those same traits and some

Abby:

of the other people that I've worked with, you know, one of the very first

Abby:

altruistic kidney donors in the country.

Abby:

In fact, the first sort of known instance, if somebody's giving their

Abby:

kidney to a stranger off the list, cause my, a woman, I had the wonderful,

Abby:

good fortune to speak to in writing my book who was anonymous completely to

Abby:

her recipient for, close to 20 years.

Abby:

And I wonder if her recipient would have wanted to know what person that

Abby:

saved her life, but I think it's right.

Abby:

Yeah.

Abby:

Although I have to say it's amazing.

Abby:

There are individual differences with this too.

Abby:

So there is some recipients who feel really uncomfortable with the idea that

Abby:

a stranger has done something so big for them, and they, they really wrestle

Abby:

with feelings of guilt and unworthiness and a lot of conflicted feelings.

Abby:

So I've discovered that there's a sizable fraction of people who are saved by

Abby:

strangers, who it gives them a lot of uncomfortable feelings and they don't

Abby:

really want to meet or talk to the person who did this, which is too bad because I

Abby:

bet they would feel better if they did.

Abby:

Yeah.

Aaron Narration:

Yeah, because people are so varied and complex, psychological

Aaron Narration:

science often requires innovative methods for understanding the human mind.

Aaron Narration:

How do you study something as nuanced as altruism?

Aaron Narration:

One creative approach is to look at the opposite of what you're studying

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and then you can see what's going on.

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Well, what's the opposite of an altruist?

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It's a psychopath.

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Psychopathy is a diagnosable condition.

Aaron Narration:

As Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh will explain.

Aaron Narration:

And it can be observed as soon as early childhood.

Abby:

We'll attempt to use neuroscience to understand the questions I

Abby:

wanted to understand was to study kids, adolescents, mostly with a

Abby:

psychopathic personality traits, which again is this clinical approach.

Abby:

You're identifying a construct you're interested in, in this

Abby:

case, compassion and care.

Abby:

And then you find a population of people who seem to be missing

Abby:

that phenomenon and you try to study what's different about them.

Abby:

And then ideally what you'll.

Abby:

Come up with whatever's different about them is the thing that creates

Abby:

that construct you're interested in.

Abby:

And this is exactly how we study memory and face recognition and

Abby:

intelligence and all sorts of things.

Abby:

It's really, in some ways, ideal to study adolescents with psychopathic

Abby:

traits because well, for a couple of reasons, one psychopathy, which is

Abby:

really just a personality marked by extreme callousness and lack of caring

Abby:

about other people, a fair degree of narcissism, and true Machiavellianism.

Abby:

And then also a kind of disinhibited personality.

Abby:

You sort of tend to act before thinking it's a developmental disorders.

Abby:

So the early signs of that are almost always evidence in very young childhood.

Abby:

And then it tends to get dramatically worse than adolescents, which is the most

Abby:

antisocial period of life in general.

Abby:

And then as adolescents get older, they tend to have experiences that pile

Abby:

up that affect their brains like long periods in detention or substance use.

Abby:

And so the younger, the kids you study, the more, you feel a

Abby:

little more comfortable, that what you're seeing is brain differences

Abby:

that cause the psychopathy.

Abby:

So we set out to study kids between the ages of about 10 and 17.

Abby:

And, you know, people was like, Oh my gosh, how many kids are there that

Abby:

are psychopathic in that age range?

Abby:

And the answer is about the same as every other age range, which is about 1%.

Abby:

So one and a hundred kids, maybe two have these traits.

Abby:

And it was really a challenging study.

Abby:

The families of these kids have a lot of burdens.

Abby:

In addition, you know, these kids by definition are not really very caring

Abby:

and compassionate, so they don't care about your research or you at all.

Abby:

They just are usually motivated by the chance to get some money.

Abby:

Which we were very happy to pay them in exchange for their time.

Abby:

But you know, the armored research participant is actually

Abby:

a more caring person than the average person we have learned.

Abby:

Generally, people are unusually caring, people who sign up

Abby:

to participate in research.

Abby:

And so they try to do their best, right.

Abby:

They try to keep still on the magnet so that they don't blurry

Abby:

brain image at the end of it.

Abby:

And when you're working with kids who are psychopathic, you

Abby:

don't really get any of that.

Abby:

You know, they don't stay still.

Abby:

Oh, we lost so many kids that were know perfect participants in every way.

Abby:

So they just couldn't or just wouldn't stay still on the scanner.

Abby:

They often are running into trouble so frequently that they end up not able to

Abby:

come in the day of their study because they ended up in detention the night

Abby:

before, or they ran away from home.

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Or we have more than one kid lost their parent out of the house when

Abby:

it was time to come in for the study.

Abby:

So that they couldn't actually come in that day.

Abby:

That was it.

Abby:

So it's a long list of things.

Aaron Narration:

Although this episode is mostly about altruism and the brain.

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I want to pause here and reflect on how hard it can be for psychopathic

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kids and their families, because their behavior is by definition antisocial.

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It's hard for us in society to respond to their cruelty with compassion,

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but psychopathy is a mental illness and it's a huge burden on the

Aaron Narration:

families that are dealing with it.

Aaron Narration:

I asked Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh, what more we can be doing as a society to help.

Abby:

Well, the first thing we need to do is just agree that it's a mental illness,

Abby:

that the psychopathy is a brain disorder.

Abby:

Every bit, as much as autism or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,

Abby:

nobody chooses to have these traits.

Abby:

We know that like everything psychopathy results from a combination

Abby:

of genetic environmental influences.

Abby:

And the problem is that it's just really hard for people to hear or know

Abby:

about somebody being hurt or somebody breaking a really serious rule and not

Abby:

immediately turn the situation into a primarily moral situation where the

Abby:

person who hurt somebody or broke a rule as bad and deserves punishment.

Abby:

And that's a sort of an incompatible frame of mind with this person

Abby:

is ill and deserves treatment.

Abby:

And unfortunately, both stands are true for people who are psychopathic.

Abby:

Yes.

Abby:

They, you know, they should experience the consequences of their behavior,

Abby:

but they also need treatment.

Abby:

And we also need to learn how to prevent these symptoms from emerging.

Abby:

And if we can do that, we will save society from an unbelievable

Abby:

amount of suffering and pain because, you know, nobody wants to

Abby:

be this way, you know, suffer from a lifetime of broken relationships.

Abby:

Time in detention and nobody loves you and you don't love anybody else.

Abby:

Wouldn't it be great to be able to prevent that if we could.

Aaron Narration:

There are therapies for other conditions like autism,

Aaron Narration:

they can help kids learn to read and follow social norms would this kind

Aaron Narration:

of thing work for psychopathic kids?

Abby:

Those strategies work really well.

Abby:

Which is one reason society pours so many resources into making sure that

Abby:

kids who are diagnosed with autism at a young age, get them because it makes

Abby:

a huge difference in their outcomes.

Abby:

I think someday we'll be able to do the same for psychopathy.

Abby:

We'll be able to identify markers very early in life, come up with

Abby:

effective parent training strategies.

Abby:

Um, that can be used to really improve these kids' social, emotional processing.

Abby:

And I think we'll be able to lift them just far enough above sort

Abby:

of the risk threshold that we'll be able to change their behavior.

Abby:

Long-term and I, that would be wonderful.

Abby:

The problem with working with older people who are psychopathic

Abby:

is mostly the narcissism, right?

Abby:

They, they think they're the best people in the world.

Abby:

So I've, you know, I've worked with teenagers who you know, have been

Abby:

thrown out of multiple schools and their parents were afraid of them.

Abby:

They didn't have any friends and they'd been in detention many times and all

Abby:

the question we've been asked, all the kids we work with is, you know, how

Abby:

would you rate yourself overall on a scale from one to 10, with one being,

Abby:

I don't feel good about myself at all.

Abby:

And 10 being, I feel amazing about myself and the average healthy

Abby:

kid in the U S will usually answer with a seven or an eight.

Abby:

I feel pretty good about myself, but there's room for improvement.

Abby:

Right?

Abby:

I think that's actually a very healthy response.

Abby:

And these are kids who are generally doing pretty well and they're not alive.

Abby:

Um, whereas the kids who was thinking about the trays would routinely

Abby:

answer when you ask them how they feel about themselves at 10 or at 11.

Abby:

And we had one kid say, and again, these are these kids

Abby:

lives objectively a disaster.

Abby:

Not that they don't have any good traits, cause they all do.

Abby:

They all have lots of good traits, but things are not going well.

Abby:

And the problem is, if somebody doesn't feel that room for

Abby:

improvement in themselves, then they will not be motivated to do

Abby:

any therapy to change themselves.

Abby:

They think they're the ones who are the best already.

Abby:

Right?

Abby:

And so it's fundamentally a problem of motivation.

Abby:

Now I've heard of interesting cases that people who are psychopathic, who claim

Abby:

to have been not cured necessarily, but, but successfully treated to be

Abby:

able to function really well in life.

Abby:

And it came from an insight that they were screwing up their own life through

Abby:

the way they treated other people that their own life would be much better if

Abby:

they learn to treat other people better.

Aaron Narration:

So let's get back to the neuroscience.

Aaron Narration:

Now, what did Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh learn in her study of psychopathic teens?

Aaron Narration:

To a significant degree, they all exhibited a common trait.

Aaron Narration:

A reduced sensitivity to fear and not just their own fear.

Aaron Narration:

What psychopaths share is a general inability to detect fear in others.

Aaron Narration:

What's so unique about fear.

Abby:

Fear is one of two kind of, you know, King or queen emotions.

Abby:

That really are there, they're more fundamental, they're sort of simpler and

Abby:

the neural architecture that supports them because they're so essential to survival.

Abby:

The first is reward seeking, right?

Abby:

Learning about things in the world that will yield rewards.

Abby:

And the second, is harm avoidance, uh, which is fear and learning what kinds

Abby:

of things are threatening and could hurt you and avoiding them in the future.

Abby:

And it's just, you know, I mean, it is the Darwinian imperative is that you.

Abby:

Is that you experienced fear and in order to prevent being killed.

Abby:

And so I think it is an increase.

Abby:

It is different fundamentally from emotions like sadness, to

Abby:

some extent, even anger, which is a little more complex than fear.

Abby:

Although also pretty simple love, certainly emotions like

Abby:

that are much more complicated.

Abby:

And so it's one of the fun things about studying fear.

Abby:

You can really get your hands around it because it's pretty simple.

Abby:

What's even more interesting about fear, I think, is that the way we recognize it

Abby:

in other people as some unique features and has some in some ways simpler than the

Abby:

way we understand other states and people.

Aaron Narration:

On average, we're very good at seeing fear in others because

Aaron Narration:

human faces broadcast it so effectively.

Aaron Narration:

Try this right now, raise your eyebrows high and draw them together.

Aaron Narration:

Making a wrinkle between them now open your eyes wide so that we can

Aaron Narration:

see the whites of your eyes really clearly now stretch your lips tight

Aaron Narration:

with, or without your mouth open.

Aaron Narration:

These are the ingredients of a fearful expression.

Aaron Narration:

And even when you do them on purpose, you can kind of feel the emotion of fear.

Aaron Narration:

We not only feel it when we make that expression, but we also feel it when

Aaron Narration:

we see the expression on others, it's part of our human ability to empathize.

Abby:

What's really interesting about fear is that we understand

Abby:

the neural pathways that support the experience of the emotion really well.

Abby:

And so we've been able to determine that those same neural

Abby:

pathways support, understanding the emotion and other people.

Abby:

And so this is, I think been one of the coolest discoveries of the last decade

Abby:

or so, and social neuroscience is that.

Abby:

This is one of the key ways that we understand the experiences of other

Abby:

people is by trying to simulate them, not, you know, not fully, right?

Abby:

So when you see somebody else who's afraid, you won't necessarily feel

Abby:

extreme fear yourself, but under the hood, you know, maybe even below the

Abby:

surface of conscious awareness, your brain is trying to produce a sort of a

Abby:

shadow or a simulation of that experience.

Abby:

So will then allow you to interpret it and respond appropriately.

Aaron Narration:

So what psychopaths lack is the ability to detect fear and others

Aaron Narration:

and respond the way the rest of us do.

Aaron Narration:

Is missing capacity for empathy comes with a whole host of terrible

Aaron Narration:

knock on effects like callousness, narcissism, and a lack of inhibition.

Aaron Narration:

What makes the rest of us not psychopathic is our empathy.

Aaron Narration:

This brain simulation that we do when we see the emotions of others,

Aaron Narration:

but empathy isn't enough on its own.

Aaron Narration:

In the incredible book called altruism, Buddhist monk and neuroscientist Matthieu

Aaron Narration:

Ricard points out that empathy on its own can lead to fatigue and burnout.

Aaron Narration:

That is, if it isn't also accompanied by compassionate action, this

Aaron Narration:

is where altruism comes in.

Aaron Narration:

But how do you study altruism in the brain?

Aaron Narration:

Can you scientifically identify people who are especially generous?

Aaron Narration:

Just like you can identify psychopaths.

Aaron Narration:

And now for a word from our sponsor, do you teach ethics to others?

Aaron Narration:

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Aaron Narration:

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Aaron Narration:

Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh's fantastic idea was to study people who donate kidneys to strangers.

Aaron Narration:

A group she calls extreme altruists.

Aaron Narration:

As I mentioned earlier, there are a few hundred of these donations

Aaron Narration:

to strangers performed every year.

Aaron Narration:

So, what did she find?

Aaron Narration:

Well, as psychopaths are mostly or completely unable to detect fear and

Aaron Narration:

others altruists are far better at it than the average person, this heightened

Aaron Narration:

ability to sense fear in other people is what helps them see a need to act.

Aaron Narration:

But if they're better at detecting fear, why aren't they overwhelmed by it?

Aaron Narration:

After all getting surgery to give up a kidney is intimidating.

Aaron Narration:

How do altruists overcome the fear that they are so good at sensing?

Abby:

Yeah.

Abby:

So this is one of my favorite topics, right?

Abby:

So, and this is one of the points I really think is incredibly important to remember

Abby:

when you're thinking about altruism as incredibly important distinction

Abby:

between being fearless and being brave.

Abby:

And it's gotten to the point where I'm a little ridiculous and how

Abby:

annoyed I get when people refer to altruists and heroes as fearless.

Abby:

Yeah, because they're really not.

Abby:

If you ask them about their experiences, helping other people, the people I work

Abby:

with who donate kidneys to strangers are not people who are unafraid of pain or on

Abby:

afraid of surgery or unafraid of dying.

Abby:

You know, they don't tend to be fearless people on their walks of

Abby:

life and what they are is brave.

Abby:

And they wouldn't call themselves that almost ever, because they

Abby:

don't experience that that way.

Aaron Narration:

Where does this courage come from in extreme altruists?

Aaron Narration:

They sense the fear, but what makes them act bravely in the

Aaron Narration:

face of it to help someone else?

Aaron Narration:

Well it's because of the human capacity for something called allomothering.

Abby:

And this, I think gets to a really important point about how the brain

Abby:

works, which is related to allomothering, which just means taking care of anyone

Abby:

who's not your own offspring, allo meaning other, so what's so interesting

Abby:

about the way the brain is built.

Abby:

And mammals is that what's unique about mammals is that, of course we

Abby:

have these very helpless offspring who need a huge amount of care and

Abby:

protection and resource provision from their parents in order to survive.

Abby:

And so our brains had to get built.

Abby:

Especially females for most species, but in humans, very clearly both males

Abby:

and females, our brains had to get built to, to care about the welfare

Abby:

of other individuals and the region of the brain called the amygdala in

Abby:

particular, the influence of a hormone called oxytocin within the amygdala.

Abby:

Seems to be critical to especially caring about when others are in

Abby:

danger, especially our own offspring.

Abby:

And that particular region of the brain seems to be essential for responding

Abby:

when somebody else is in danger for over coming for suppressing the desire to

Abby:

protect yourself and replacing it with a desire to protect someone other than you.

Abby:

And so if you don't have a well-functioning amygdala, like people

Abby:

who are psychopathic, you are nearly, you are neither fearful to people

Abby:

who are psychopathic or characterized by being relatively fearless.

Abby:

Nor are you interested in helping others who are in danger, or who are afraid.

Abby:

And so the capacity for fear is actually essential to being brave when it comes

Abby:

to helping others who are in danger.

Abby:

And it seems to be the parts of the brain that give us the

Abby:

ability to be good parents that allow that transition to be made.

Aaron Narration:

So what's happening with altruism is we have this ability

Aaron Narration:

to detect fear in others and feel it ourselves, but then have that fear

Aaron Narration:

overcome by the presence of oxytocin.

Aaron Narration:

And that's what makes us show care.

Aaron Narration:

Well, this process doesn't work the same in everyone.

Aaron Narration:

What factors change our capacity for altruism?

Abby:

And they do vary a lot.

Abby:

People seem to become more altruistic as they get older.

Abby:

So if you, look at behaviors like altruistic kidney donation, you see a

Abby:

lot more of it and people who are middle aged and older than you do when people

Abby:

who were younger, although not zero, I've worked with some altruistic kidney donors

Abby:

in their late teens, but just as a trend.

Abby:

You definitely see lots of personality variation.

Abby:

So people who are altruistic kidney donors also tend to be the sort

Abby:

of people who help others in need and various other ways, including

Abby:

animals, including young children.

Aaron Narration:

The science of this brings up some really

Aaron Narration:

deep philosophical questions.

Aaron Narration:

If altruism is desirable, which I think we believe it is, it

Aaron Narration:

varies across personalities

Aaron Narration:

and people.

Aaron Narration:

Can we even do anything to get more of it?

Aaron Narration:

Can we choose more of it?

Aaron Narration:

Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh firmly believes that we can, but we need to better understand

Aaron Narration:

what helps us make that happen.

Aaron Narration:

One of those things is seeing how altruism can lead to a virtuous cycle.

Aaron Narration:

It turns out that on average, the better off the society is

Aaron Narration:

the more altruistic it can be.

Abby:

So, and geographic regions where people say they're

Abby:

flourishing, you tend to see.

Abby:

More, for example, altruistic kidney donation, blood donation,

Abby:

charitable donation, volunteering, all these things tend to go together.

Abby:

And that's kind of cool because it suggests that when people

Abby:

are in the position to, to help, that's what they naturally do.

Abby:

I like that.

Abby:

And it's better than the Faustian bargain I would have to make, if

Abby:

it turned out that flourishing made people less likely to help others.

Abby:

Cause then you'd have to choose between the two, but it doesn't seem like you do.

Aaron Narration:

I had to jump in here because research by Michael

Aaron Narration:

Krauss, Docker, Keltner, and others have shown that increased wealth can

Aaron Narration:

actually reduce empathy and altruism.

Aaron Narration:

Basically the wealthier we are, the less we encounter and relate

Aaron Narration:

to the suffering of others.

Aaron Narration:

Wealth also makes people feel entitled to act in more selfish ways.

Aaron Narration:

Studies have even shown, that when you put average people in nicer cars, they're

Aaron Narration:

less likely to stop for pedestrians than if you put them in less expensive cars.

Aaron Narration:

So how does this square with Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh's research that shows that increased prosperity leads to increased altruism?

Aaron Narration:

Well, the better way to think about this is that altruism is

Aaron Narration:

not tied to excess wealth, but to flourishing, flourishing is deeper

Aaron Narration:

and more meaningful than just money.

Abby:

If you look at large representative samples of the population, you tend

Abby:

to find this very close tracking between people's wellbeing.

Abby:

They're feeling that they're flourishing feeling like they have purpose in

Abby:

life, feeling their needs are met and altruism towards strangers.

Abby:

And we've recently seen this in a study.

Abby:

We did looking across countries as well.

Abby:

And this is even when you co-vary out every other, you know, demographic and

Abby:

objective variable that you can think of.

Abby:

And it is strange, right?

Abby:

Because it suggests that like, you know, the uber wealthy will be the

Abby:

most altruistic and that that's not actually what the data means.

Abby:

I guess we don't study that uber-wealthy we studied, you know, the top 10% or

Abby:

something like that versus the middle 10%.

Abby:

And probably the deal is that altruism does require you

Abby:

to have a view of the world.

Abby:

That's fundamentally optimistic, that people are generally good and

Abby:

worthy of helping and would help you if you needed help yourself.

Abby:

And most people I've worked with who are altruistic kidney donors

Abby:

do have that view with people.

Abby:

Right.

Abby:

Because otherwise, if you encounter some random stranger, you know, nothing

Abby:

about the one thing you have to think, if you're going to help them as this

Abby:

person deserves to be helped, which does require a sort of fundamental optimism

Abby:

about people and something that like demographers and social scientists

Abby:

have known for many decades is that when people have experienced like

Abby:

really a lot of difficulties in their life circumstances, you tend to see an

Abby:

increase in cynicism and misanthropy, which is not at all surprising,

Abby:

you know, it makes perfect sense.

Abby:

Um, but unfortunately it can, you know, have some unfortunate downstream effects.

Abby:

And so I think what the reality is that there's sort of a critical combination

Abby:

of feeling like you are, you know, you were in a position to help other people

Abby:

because of your own good fortune and having had enough positive experiences in

Abby:

your life that you still feel like people are generally good and worthy of helping.

Abby:

Not that I'm passing judgment on whether or not that's true objectively,

Abby:

it's just, you know, it's, it's an assumption that underlies altruism.

Aaron Narration:

It's not just flourishing in your life, that

Aaron Narration:

prompts you towards generosity.

Aaron Narration:

It's also having been through hard times and during difficult experiences

Aaron Narration:

has the ability to deepen our empathy and our instinct for compassion.

Aaron Narration:

As long as our suffering didn't turn us into cynics.

Abby:

But also, I do think that the people within that sort of large group

Abby:

who are the most altruistic are people who have experienced extreme suffering,

Abby:

who really understand what it means to suffer, to be afraid, to feel pain.

Abby:

And so I think that's the critical combination.

Abby:

We generally see is that people who are genuinely report that they're

Abby:

flourishing in their life, but have also had significant experiences of pain and

Abby:

suffering, I think do tend to be the most impathic because they have, they feel

Abby:

like they have the resources to give.

Abby:

They do have some fundamental optimism.

Abby:

But they also understand what it means to really suffer and they, so they can

Abby:

empathize and are motivated to help.

Abby:

And they also feel a sense of self efficacy.

Abby:

So this is really interesting work done by David DeSteno showing that

Abby:

people who've experienced significant trauma or natural disasters themselves

Abby:

benefit from the self-efficacy that that experience gives you a feeling like,

Abby:

you know, what to do in that situation.

Aaron Narration:

Up to this point, we've already learned so much from Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Marsh about altruism.

Aaron Narration:

But there's another mechanism that we need to talk about.

Aaron Narration:

It's a very deeply human part of the way altruism works.

Aaron Narration:

It has to do with the way we think of ourselves in Western cultures,

Aaron Narration:

especially there's this dominant idea of individualism that each of us has

Aaron Narration:

starkly distinct from each other, self, as we might define it is me and

Aaron Narration:

me alone, but in practice, this isn't really how we think about ourselves.

Aaron Narration:

We consistently wrap others into our definition of self,

Aaron Narration:

through the relationships that we have with one another.

Aaron Narration:

For example, I'm a husband because of my spouse.

Aaron Narration:

I'm a father because of my children.

Aaron Narration:

I'm a teacher because of my students.

Aaron Narration:

They all make up part of who I am.

Aaron Narration:

Surely this has some effect on my expressions of altruism or compassion.

Abby:

Oh, man, this is one, this is, this is my current

Abby:

obsession, this particular topic.

Abby:

How is it that we decide that others are part of our sort of self concept

Abby:

that we, that we perceive overlap between ourselves and others.

Abby:

And this is clearly something we're built to do is to think of ourselves as.

Abby:

As fundamentally connected to others around us.

Abby:

You know, we are the, the boundary of the self that has never ended

Abby:

at the surface of our skin.

Abby:

I mean, you were full of microbes.

Abby:

We were embedded in communities without which we couldn't survive.

Abby:

We're fundamentally embedded in the world that we live in.

Abby:

And so we're, and our brain knows this.

Abby:

Our brain does not think that boundary of ourself and at the, at the boundary

Abby:

of risk, And how does that happen?

Abby:

A lot?

Abby:

We don't know.

Abby:

There is some interesting evidence that actually the amygdala and oxytocin's

Abby:

effects within the amygdala are essential for making that self other distinction,

Abby:

which makes sense, because of course, this is a phenomenon that's intrinsic to,

Abby:

for example, becoming a parent, is this, you know, brand new being that has never

Abby:

existed before a plops into the world.

Abby:

And you have to immediately decide that that other organism is so very much a part

Abby:

of yourself that you will do anything to promote it's welfare and you obviously can

Abby:

distinguish between it and your yourself.

Abby:

Right.

Abby:

You know, treat it as though it was actually you, but it has to become a

Abby:

very much a part of your own identity.

Abby:

And so clearly this is something where we're very good at it and can

Abby:

do in some cases, almost instantly.

Aaron Narration:

Can we somehow enhance our ability to feel more

Aaron Narration:

connected to others to make it feel like they are part of us.

Abby:

There are lots of ways that we can do it.

Abby:

It's sort of in the here and now, other than having a baby what's

Abby:

one sort of tried and true method and probably the most successful

Abby:

is simple, positive social contact.

Abby:

It's amazing how familiarity breeds, tends not to breed in

Abby:

town to actually tends to breed.

Abby:

Mostly positive feelings.

Abby:

The better you get to know somebody in general, unless they're just a real

Abby:

jerk, which there are some of those, but if they're not tend to like the

Abby:

better, and this is one of those things that I think in the current moment

Abby:

in time is so incredibly important.

Abby:

As we're trying to learn how very diverse groups of people can get along

Abby:

better, positive social contact, right?

Abby:

We have to just, we have to be together and spending time doing things together

Abby:

that are mostly positive and that will inevitably breed better understanding

Abby:

and more liking, which is so important.

Abby:

And we also know from social psychology, that one of the best kinds of things you

Abby:

can do with others to form a coherent identity is work on collaborative projects

Abby:

together and work towards a common goal.

Abby:

When you do that with people, I think it's, I think there's

Abby:

something really interesting in how the brain determines what itself

Abby:

is versus what someone else does.

Abby:

And it has a lot to do with prediction, right?

Abby:

If you can predict an outcome.

Abby:

In the world, you tend to incorporate that thing you

Abby:

predicted into your sense of self.

Abby:

And so when we're working with other people as a team, especially people

Abby:

who are very familiar to ourselves, we can often predict what they're going

Abby:

to do or say before they do or say it.

Abby:

And I think that's really intrinsic to feeling like the other person is

Abby:

almost like a part of your own self.

Abby:

You know, a part of your own identity is that, you know what they're going

Abby:

to do as almost as well as, you know, what you yourself are going to do.

Abby:

Yeah, this is why people, most people give kidneys.

Abby:

Most people, the vast majority of people who give kidneys, give them

Abby:

to very close relatives to their parent or child or spouse or sibling.

Abby:

And those people are very much embedded in the concept of ourselves.

Abby:

And so the value of a kidney, whether it's in your own body or whether

Abby:

it's in the body of somebody that you love so much that they, they

Abby:

do feel like part of yourself.

Abby:

I mean, why do we say when those people die, that if we've missed

Abby:

it, we missing a part of ourselves.

Abby:

It's because they're so embedded in the concept of self.

Abby:

And so if that same kidney has an editable impact on our own welfare,

Abby:

but it would save their life.

Abby:

It just is an obvious choice to most people.

Abby:

It's just like, Oh my God.

Abby:

Like if this person.

Abby:

We're gone.

Abby:

It would be like, you know, a little, a death to a part of myself.

Abby:

So obviously the kidney is better over there than it is over here.

Abby:

And then of course, what's so interesting about the really extraordinary

Abby:

altruist is that they seem to feel that way even about strangers.

Abby:

They really they're the concept for them.

Abby:

This their sense of self is even broader than the average

Abby:

person, which is pretty cool.

Aaron Narration:

So do you think humanity is headed that direction

Aaron Narration:

where we have more extreme altruists or more extreme altruism, so to

Aaron Narration:

speak more altruism for strangers?

Abby:

I absolutely do.

Abby:

I mean, it's so clear that that people feel this way much more now than they

Abby:

did decades ago, that it, you know, the reason people get so bummed out when

Abby:

they're watching the news is because they really care about the fate of strangers.

Abby:

And, you know, who'll, they'll never meet and places.

Abby:

They've never been, you know, millions of miles away.

Abby:

That's really amazing.

Abby:

That we've gotten to the point where, you know, for you or me, like the plight

Abby:

of people who, you know, are in Beirut.

Abby:

For example, this week, it really moves us.

Abby:

We don't know them.

Abby:

We may not speak their language.

Abby:

We, you know, why do we care about them?

Abby:

And, you know, arguably a hundred, 200 years ago, people

Abby:

would not have cared at all.

Abby:

Oh, that would have been like, Oh, well that's too bad.

Abby:

You know, I wouldn't have wished it upon them, but I don't feel for them.

Abby:

And now we do.

Abby:

And I think it's because of the way that we live, we encounter much wider diversity

Abby:

of people we're living in a world that's more peaceful than it used to be.

Abby:

And so we don't view.

Abby:

Life as it is it just a series of, you know, winner take all contest between

Abby:

warring sociopolitical groups and we, you know, countries rely on each other.

Abby:

People within those countries rely on each other for our daily

Abby:

survival in large diverse groups that are much bigger than those sort

Abby:

of relatively small collectives.

Abby:

And most people lived in for most of human history.

Abby:

And I think it's making us feel like the fate of strangers is

Abby:

more embedded in our own faith.

Aaron Narration:

There are so many lessons to learn from all of this,

Aaron Narration:

but here at the end of the episode, I want to dwell on this one idea.

Aaron Narration:

You are not you alone.

Aaron Narration:

There's so much more to you than that.

Aaron Narration:

The secret is defined more of yourself and other people.

Aaron Narration:

We grow in a very real and meaningful way in the connections that we form with

Aaron Narration:

others as they become part of us, we make much more of ourselves, but it's

Aaron Narration:

up to us to make those connections.

Aaron Narration:

And as you can see, our brains are prepared for these connections.

Aaron Narration:

The opportunities we have to give are abundant, and they don't even

Aaron Narration:

require you to give up a kidney.

Aaron Narration:

Though you could do that too.

Aaron Narration:

The point is that when you offer part of yourself to someone else

Aaron Narration:

in a very real way, you're getting more of yourself in return.

Aaron Narration:

You become a person that matters to another human being, just as

Aaron Narration:

they matter to you, your connection expands, who you are in a way

Aaron Narration:

that you couldn't do on your own.

Aaron Narration:

Many many thanks to Dr.

Aaron Narration:

Abigail Marsh for taking the time to talk with me.

Aaron Narration:

It was a delightful conversation.

Aaron Narration:

Do make sure that you watch your Ted talk and definitely check out her book.

Aaron Narration:

The Fear Factor we've linked to both of these in the show notes.

Aaron Narration:

If you want to keep up with How to Help consider subscribing to our newsletter.

Aaron Narration:

You can find it at how-two-help.com.

Aaron Narration:

It's also linked in the show notes.

Aaron Narration:

If you've enjoyed this episode, it helps us a lot.

Aaron Narration:

If you give a positive review in your podcast, directory of choice, that

Aaron Narration:

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Aaron Narration:

Please be sure to subscribe.

Aaron Narration:

So that way you get future episodes as they come out.

Aaron Narration:

Next time, we'll be talking with David Williams.

Aaron Narration:

He's the former CEO of the national Make-A-Wish foundation, former COO of

Aaron Narration:

habitat for humanity, former executive director of the Houston area food bank.

Aaron Narration:

And currently he's the CEO of Genesis works.

Aaron Narration:

We're going to be talking with him about what he's done his

Aaron Narration:

entire career, giving people hope.

Aaron Narration:

Thanks, Merit Leadership who sponsors this podcast and to our production team, which

Aaron Narration:

included Cindy Hall, travis Stevenson, yours truly, and Eric Robertson,

Aaron Narration:

who did the editing and the music.

Aaron Narration:

Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures, music club.

Aaron Narration:

If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link

Aaron Narration:

and a discount code in our show notes.

Aaron Narration:

Finally, thank you so much for listening.

Aaron Narration:

I am Aaron Miller and this has been how to Help.

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