How generosity manifests itself in the nervous system

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Generosity is not only pleasurable for giver and receiver, it has a host of other benefits for children, including the promotion of healthy friendships. But what makes children generous, and can we as parents encourage them?

A recent study explored how different factors contribute to the development of generosity in young children. Researcher Jonas Miller and his colleagues studied children – who were mostly white and from middle-to-upper-middle-income families – first at age four and again at age six.

In both cases, the children played different activities to earn tokens which they could then redeem for a prize. After the children earned all of their tokens, the researchers explained to the children that they could give some, none, or all of their tokens (if they wanted) to other sick and hospitalized or struggling children.

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Using an EKG, researchers took several measurements of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) in children, which is how our heart rate changes when we breathe in (go faster). and breathe out (let’s go slower). RSA is linked to the regulation of emotions and social engagement. Decreases in RSA suggest a physiological ability to respond to a challenge, while increases in RSA suggest a perception of safety. A flexibly changing RSA indicates that our nervous system is adapting well to changing life circumstances.

The researchers calculated the changes in children’s RSA during different parts of the study visits: when the researchers gave them instructions, when the children decided to donate their tokens, and at the end of the visit.

The mothers of the children also completed a questionnaire about their own propensity for compassionate love, noting statements such as “I tend to feel compassion for people even though I don’t know them” and “J often have loving feelings towards my child when she / he seems in need.

The results?

On average, children donated 25% of their chips by the age of four and 20% of their chips by the age of six. Although children varied a lot in their generosity, the researchers found that each child’s generosity tended to be somewhat stable from Kindergarten to Kindergarten. In other words, children who were more generous at age four tended to be more generous at age six as well.

Regarding physiological patterns, children tended to show a decrease in RSA between receipt of instructions and the decision to give, and an increase in RSA between the decision to give and the end of the study visit. Those who had a larger decrease in RSA when deciding to donate were, on average, more generous.

This offers some evidence that the flexibility of the parasympathetic nervous system in children could support generosity.

After deciding to donate, the more generous children had a larger increase in RSA – a return to baseline – until the end of the study visit. This recovery suggests that children experience a physical sensation of calming after giving, a benefit that can “serve as a physiological reinforcement to help others,” Miller and colleagues explain.

Additionally, among six-year-olds who had a greater decrease in RSA when deciding to donate, those whose mothers were more compassionate were even more generous. Miller and colleagues explain, “Benevolent parenting and RSA responsiveness can serve as external and internal supports for prosociality. [kind and helpful behavior] that are built on top of each other.

All of this suggests that young children may show a predisposition towards acts of generosity, and its corresponding physiological patterns.

What can you do to nurture your child’s instinct for compassion? Be generous by showing them compassion when they struggle – their experience of receiving your warmth and tenderness will prepare them to take care of others in turn.


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