The Selfless Biology of the Extreme Altruist

What is the opposite of a psychopath? What is the limit of human goodness?

James Grebey

I immediately spot Ned Brooks when I walk into the lobby of New York’s Yale Club. He’s dowdily dressed in a puffy navy vest, a striped shirt, and corduroy pants. In the dim chandelier lighting, his gray buzz cut and serene, no-nonsense demeanor makes him distinctly average: a sore thumb amidst the sharp suits of the sophisticated Yale Club but the kind of vague, familiar face you feel like you’ve seen. He’s taken the train down from suburban Connecticut to tell me about the kidney he gave away and, when he recognizes me, he ambles towards me, his hand outstretched. We shake and he escorts me across a marble floor to a staircase that flows into a long hall and drains into an empty ballroom. Then he leaves me to get us drinks.

Save for staff rushing to set the ballroom up for a party and a wall of portraits — university presidents beatified with oil paints — I’m alone. I’m also uncomfortable. Ned Brooks has gone hours out of his way to do me a favor and seems totally at home in the club, even though he didn’t go to Yale (he’s from a sister Ivy, Dartmouth). It’s an unusual social situation engineered solely for my benefit, so I’m eager to professionalize our visit. When Brooks sit down, I quickly turn my iPhone audio recorder on and place it between us. And before I ask him a question, he starts talking.

“I’m the poster boy for altruism,” he says.

I suddenly notice Brooks’s eyes, clear blue and as unnerving as the boldness of his opening statement. I begin to think that he might be what I was promised, an extreme altruist. Whatever he is, it’s clearly something different from what I am. He’s more present than querulous and seems secure but unpretentious — an achievement, given the setting.

I start asking questions and he begins answering them with research, mostly reiterating what I already know. Altruism researcher Abigail Marsh put me in touch with Brooks because he is an “extreme altruist,” someone who feels an intense, biological compulsion to give of themselves to others — or at least says he is. This means that he does not think twice before offering help, even at personal cost. It didn’t take any convincing to persuade him to make the two-hour trip from his home to midtown Manhattan.

Brooks seems genuine and patient. He makes attempts to put me at ease. He grins amiably and often. Still, I find myself wondering what he hopes to gain. What does he want from me? What does he want for me? What makes him like this?

Ned Brooks, after waking up from surgery to donate his kidney to a stranger, in November 2015.

Courtesy Ned Brooks

Before Auguste Comte, the father of modern sociology, coined the term altruism in the middle of the nineteenth century, selflessness had long been understood in terms of religiosity and piousness. Comte, however, firmly believed that ethical behavior was a fundamental part of the human experience separate from faith and consequences dictated by the divine. He described altruism as a “force” in opposition to selfishness and kickstarted a subfield of biology known as evolutionary ethics, a field that only began producing reproducible experimental results within the last decade.

That sudden vault into the realm of serious research query can be traced to an encounter 20 years ago on a highway outside of Tacoma. Abigail Marsh, 19 years old and heading home, swerved to avoid a darting dog and lost control of her car, which then fishtailed across a four-lane highway before coming to rest on the opposite side of the road, facing oncoming traffic, with a dead engine. Marsh froze in panic and shock. But a stranger, a man she recalls looking like the actor Idris Elba, saved Marsh’s life, dodging through traffic to get Marsh out of her car, restarting her engine, and ensuring Marsh’s safety. He disappeared into the night before she’d managed to thank him.

Marsh wondered what made the man stop and risk his life for hers — she was a stranger, after all. The goodness of his heart, sure, but what was the biochemical composition of that goodness?

Today, Marsh heads Georgetown’s Laboratory of Social and Affective Neuroscience. She is Harvard-trained, brusque, and speaks quickly. She’s efficient, but her work figuring out the roots of altruism has taken time; after all, creating a yardstick for altruism is neither straightforward nor measurable.

Marsh’s solution was to analyze the neural composition of psychopaths, the emotional polar opposite of altruists on the spectrum of empathy. “There’s a sense of heritability,” she says. “It’s not 100 percent genetic, but it’s certainly not zero percent genetic.” Initial research with psychopaths in her postdoctoral work showed that there were some ties between brain structure and psychopathy, implying a biological basis.

In 2014, Marsh found what seemed to be proof of a biological basis for altruism. Her experiment analyzed the fMRI brain images of 19 people — “non-direct donors” — who had made the unusual decision to donate a kidney to a stranger while they were shown a series of photos that showed a variety of facial expressions, ranging from happiness to fear to anger. She did the same with 20 people who differed in not having made the decision to donate their kidney to a stranger.

Marsh and her team discovered a startling correlation: Non-direct donors had larger than average amygdalas. This result lined up neatly with previous work showing psychopaths’ amygdalas tend to be smaller than average.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped cluster of neurons wedged in the depths of the brain’s medial temporal lobe. The neurons inside the amygdala are akin to a processing center, facilitating the recognition of emotions, allowing for emotional understanding and empathy. People who suffer from profound bilateral damage to the amygdala struggle to recognize fear. “It’s the opposite of callousness or being uncaring,” Marsh says — they just can’t do it.

The amygdala is also believed to be involved in memory and decision-making processes, but neuroscientists don’t yet understand exactly how. It’s a crevice of mystery that may hold not only the secret to what compels us to give, but what makes us who we are.

Abigail Marsh

Kuna Malik Hamad/Georgetown University

“I take exception to the premise that donating your kidney is altruistic,” Ned Brooks tells me, sounding a bit like one of Marsh’s critics rather than the subject he is. “I’m of the belief that the benefits a non-direct donor gets when they donate their kidney far, far outweigh the minor inconvenience of a couple days in the hospital.”

Brooks grew up on the outliers of New York, in suburban Old Greenwich, Connecticut. He describes his childhood as being like Leave it to Beaver, the 1950s show with its perfect, white, nuclear family. Brooks is a fan of Marsh’s amygdala explanation, even though his own amygdala hasn’t been measured (his doctor told him not to participate in the experiment because of his age, 65 at the time; he assumes that if he had undergone testing, the result would have been in line with his fellow non-direct donors). Brooks believes he inherited his altruism, and maybe his amygdala, from his mother, who ran the Union Settlement House in East Harlem, a social service community center for the poor residents on the Upper East side. Brooks says that one of his three older sisters does charity and not-for-profit work, but that no one in his family seems to compelled to help others in the way he does.

He cannot pinpoint a single moment when he realized he was different. He believes the proof is the way he comports himself.

“I’ve noticed I’m more open to people, I share more easily, when others tend to not share,” he said, settling back into his armchair, drink in hand, gazing off into the distance. “I’m the kind of person who helps people in the street when they’re lost. I don’t know if that makes me unusual, but I do know that it’s something that I enjoy doing.” This is a self-serving thing to say, but Brooks says it without any apparent reservation, as though this is just another example of him sharing.

Brooks worked for American Express in Japan for six years after graduating before returning to Dartmouth to get his MBA at the Tuck School of Business. While he was there, he spent his free time doing tactile work with a baby born blind and deaf, helping the child adjust to the world. “I just liked the feeling of doing something good,” he says. When he graduated in 1978, he entered a quiet career in banking before retiring a few years ago.

In 2015, Brooks and his wife were on a summer road trip. They were listening to Freakonomics, the NPR podcast spun off from the best-selling pop-economics book, when an episode called “Make Me a Match” came on. It was a profile of the Stanford economist Al Roth, whose Nobel Prize-winning work considered kidney donation matching as an economic market, maximizing its efficiency and potential. Roth’s work was unique because it looked at this unique market as an example of how non-monetary systems could run efficiently purely by matching, no system necessary. Brooks — otherwise a smooth talker — stammers when describing the power of that podcast, saying he felt he’d “been struck by lightning” when he first heard it. He shudders with emotion describing the realization that he, too, should donate his kidney.

“You will find out that almost every person that donates their kidney to a stranger has very similar experiences,” Brooks insisted when asked about the nature of his compulsion to offer up his own organ. “They learn about the risks involved, but it doesn’t deter them. They very quickly come to the conclusion that they have to do it.”

By September, he’d matched with a patient on the National Kidney Registry; by November, he’d given up his spare kidney to a total stranger (he later learned her name was Danielle). In February 2016, he founded Donor to Donor which matches non-direct donors with those looking for a kidney, citing his experience as an epiphany in shaping his life’s purpose. Before meeting me at the Yale Club, he’d convinced a potential donor to go through with the operation. He described the feeling of doing so as being something like getting a good grade.

I ask him if this is a religious feeling, if he is a man of faith. He says it isn’t and he isn’t. He’s an atheist and he can’t articulate the feeling of “well-being” that selfless act gives him.

“It’s a feeling of gratification,” he repeats, over and over again, as if by repetition the phrase will ring truer. “It just makes me feel good.”

The "poster boy of altruism," Ned Brooks.

Courtesy of Ned Brooks

Scholars don’t question Marsh’s methods, but do question that anyone can behave selflessly. This skepticism is informed by the conclusion that all human behavior is derived from either self-interest or compulsion, the fundamental assumption that underpins modern economics. Though economists don’t assume evil intent or even true selfishness, they do assume that most people will take actions that maximize personal return. Psychopaths model this behavior in extreme. “People who are psychopathic tend to be bold and get resources actively, manipulate people,” says Marsh. “They don’t form long-term bonds. They take risks.”

Extreme altruists don’t model this behavior at all.

“Economists can’t break out of their way of thinking,” she says. “With human altruism, there’s a lot of mobility, variability. With economists, it’s so ingrained. Whether that’s a function of people who go into economics or just a function of having learned that line of thinking, well, I can’t say.”

Marsh may find economic determinism stultifying, but she’s quick to admit that she hasn’t presented a convincing enough argument to change minds. She’s found a correlation, only among ten people culled from a highly unusual list. Though she believes kidney donors are the most viable group of people to study for signs of extreme altruism, they’re still too small a community for her to leverage access into an overarching statement about a set of behaviors many would describe as derivative of personality, not biology.

“That’s unethical,” she says of extending research beyond the tiny non-direct donor community. “Kidney donors are contactable. I don’t know if they are the best — they are theoretically and pragmatically the best — but I can’t find anyone else [who fills the criteria]. You can’t really cold call people and invite them to participate in a study and say, ‘Wanna be in my study?’”

The other problem is trust. Marsh cannot simply trust her subjects to be honest about their pursuit of self-interest or dedication to charity. The dividends of any action are hard to understand outside of the context of an individual and how that individual chooses to function within a social group.

A 2014 paper published in PNAS and titled “Cooperate Without Looking: Why we care what people think and not just what they do” suggests that people make decisions based on how they think people will perceive them. If a person sees the opportunity to do good in some way, their immediate impulse is probably, Will someone see this good deed and shower attention upon me? It’s a narcissistic worldview that assumes we’re all hungry for public affection and praise, but evolutionary game theory (what the authors use to justify their premise) shows that this need for attention provides incentive to solve a basic need for recognition. It’s one that extreme altruists don’t seem to possess, and Marsh argues that that fact, that exceptionality, breaks apart the very foundation that economics finds to be self-evident and true. There’s also the idea of “warm-glow” in economics, the idea that altruism can be inherently driven by the rush of feel-good endorphins that flood the body after doing a good deed. Because a utility is gained after an action, that action fails to be selfless.

Auguste Comte, the 19th century French philosopher who founded sociology and defined altruism.

Wikimedia Commons

Whether or not Brooks gets off in some way on charity is, naturally, my core question. It seems simple to me but through the course of our conversation, it becomes apparent that it’s not. He fumbles for an answer as I prod him, rephrasing the same query no less than nine times. What happens if he doesn’t act altruistically? What’s something he does that the “normal” person doesn’t? What does he feel if he passes, say, a cold, hungry, homeless person? Does he feel sad, angry, empty? What happens if he tries to resist the urge to give? How does he feel? Does he get flooded with happiness that gets him high when he gives? Does he give in search of an endorphin high? Is it an impulse like eating when you’re hungry or is it a way to offer himself control in situations he might not have control over, like scratching an itch?

Brooks, frustratingly, doesn’t answer. He launches into alternative explanations, thoughts about why he is special, how he really likes to help people. These don’t answer my question, and they don’t point to why he differentiates himself from the rest of the population.

I wonder if I’m not making myself clear, so I come up with a scenario: There’s a homeless person begging on the street, but he has no physical cash on him. What would he do?

“I’d give him money,” Brooks says, nonchalantly.

“Ok, but what if you don’t have money or spare change?” I push, my patience wearing thin.

“I’d give him a twenty,” Brooks says, ignoring the premise.

When I push again, he pushes back.

“You’ll never get an answer to this.”

After a pause, Brooks launches into a story describing a recent trip to Home Depot. He was walking in the parking lot and saw a woman struggling with bubble wrap. “I could just as easily have gotten out of there and ignored her,” he says. “But I said, ‘Can I give you a hand with that?’ And she says, ‘Yeah, please.’ It’s stupid, but there’s no way I could walk by and not help her.”

We get kicked out of the ballroom due to an impending party so Brooks leads me toward an elevator that goes up to the lounge on the twenty-second floor. I keep pushing for answers, but Brooks seems to be running out of introspection. In fact, he wants to talk about me.

“You seem to have been in school for a long time,” he says before reciting the bulk of my resume by heart. He’s clearly done his research, probably on LinkedIn, and, more notably, he’s not afraid to show it. As a journalist, I’ve asked him questions I knew the answers to in an attempt to warm him up. Brooks, however, doesn’t pretend not to have taken an interest in me. This doesn’t come across as hostile, but feels brazen in an unusual way. It’s both shocking and not. He had requested to be my Facebook friend before we ever met. He considers himself a person who cares about others.

The entire interaction lasts about a minute, but it colors the rest of our time together. Brooks has made it clear that we aren’t strangers and that he’s not merely a source for quotes. We’re two people talking about our lives and decisions in the elevator of a midtown social club. Maybe this should be a normal interaction, but it feels exceptional, even extreme.

David Rand

Courtesy David Rand

“In the long run, it’s actually in your self-interest to be cooperative,” says David Rand, the head of Yale University’s Human Cooperation Laboratory.

In October 2014, Rand published an article in PLOS One grappling with the motivations of people who put themselves at risk to save the lives of strangers — people like Abigail Marsh’s highway hero. Specifically, Rand focussed on the split second between when a potential hero was confronted with a situation and when they acted.

“The basic question that a lot of my work focuses on is in the context of decision between what’s best for you and what’s best for others,” Rand tells me on the phone as he drives from his home to work. “Is it deliberation, careful thinking, a sense of doing the ‘right thing’? When you help others, do you do it automatically or think of it in the calculus of self-interest?”

While Marsh culled her subjects from the ranks of organ donors, Rand’s research focused on the recipients of the Carnegie Hero Medal, awarded to everyday people who “risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” Rand collected published interviews with recipients and analyzed them using text-analysis software.

What Rand was looking for was language that reflected the “social heuristics hypothesis,” a framework for understanding whether intuition — the automatic part of our decision-making process — or deliberation — consideration of consequences — played a larger role in heroic decision making. Rand found that selfless decisions weren’t totally impulsive. While medal winners overwhelmingly acted fast, each could articulate an incentive, a reason, for their behavior. In his paper, published on the heels of Marsh’s groundbreaking fMRI study, Rand wrote that altruists could be best understood as people who applied cooperative social reasoning to unexpected situations:

[O]ur results align with theoretical predictions of the Social Heuristics Hypothesis, which suggests that extreme altruism may be a result of internalizing (and subsequently overgeneralizing) successful behavioral strategies from lower-stakes settings where cooperation is typically advantageous: helping others is usually in one’s long-term self-interest in the context of most daily-life interactions with friends, family members and co-workers. This leads to the development of helping as an automatic default, which then sometimes gets applied in atypical settings where helping is extremely costly, such as the CHMR scenarios.

What Rand found didn’t disprove altruism’s biological basis, but questioned the idea that altruists lacked any motivation. He found that in that split second where the medal-winners made their decision to save someone, they were simultaneously making a call on how that decision would benefit themselves.

Still, Rand acknowledges that extreme altruism isn’t best measured by a computer program analyzing speech patterns: “Studying extreme altruism presents major challenges, as such behavior cannot be enacted in the lab, and hypothetical survey measures are likely to have little to do with actual behavior in these extreme settings,” he says. Rand believes that altruists are complicated, but fit into existing economic models. He does not believe that anyone acts purely out of the goodness of their heart — or amygdala.

“Our first response is what typically works well,” he says. “When you use that lens to think about cooperation, it’s usually in your self-interest to be cooperative.”

He adds that understanding altruism as an intuitive impulse might help make sense of the riddle presented by human goodness.

“Thinking about things is costly,” Rand says. “You can’t stop and think about everything.”

The Yale Club, Midtown, New York City

Wikimedia Commons

“You’ll never get your answer,” Brooks repeats, and I believe him.

I believe him. We’re sharing a bowl of peanuts and a stunning view of Central Park. We’re surrounded by businessmen in suits drinking liquor. It’s probably just me, but it feels like they too are trying to avoid Brooks’s intense gaze.

“Do you think of yourself as different?” I ask.

“I don’t think of myself as different,” Brooks responds.

Our conversation has become tiresomely repetitious because Brooks, despite being comfortable talking about being exceptional, refuses to see that exceptionalism as abnormal. He returns to my resume and then to his kidney donation and his nonprofit, which seem to be the twin pillars supporting the idea that he is aberrantly good. He doesn’t have an fMRI scan proving that his amygdala is larger than an average person or a career in public service behind him. He has a small scar and a diagnosis-cum-identity. I start to think he’s come because he wants to be known as an altruist — perhaps for the sake of Donor to Donor — not because he’s willing or necessarily able to speak to that experience.

Brooks might be an extreme altruist, but there’s no proof beyond an impulse he had a year and a half ago.

Brooks gets up from his plush chair, leaving me with a business card and a 43-minute recording crammed with half-answers and evasions. Was I seeing a different sort of biology through his eyes or just failing to read intent? The truth is that only Brooks could know and he was too selfish to really tell me.

Marsh was right. You can’t study altruism by just asking people. They lie or dissemble or shy away from the introspection necessary to answer questions about their own kindness. The study of altruism is not just a young science, it’s a science that will be slow to mature.

I munch on a few more peanuts, then take the elevator down to the lobby, which is pristine, glowing in the twilight, unmarred by the presence of Brooks. As I leave, the doorman gives me a friendly nod. It’s a gesture of professional warmth. He doesn’t care about me, but he’s paid to seem like he does and he’s good at his job. I smile back and step out into a cold winter night.

Related Tags