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What Makes a Hero?

The Surprising Science of Selflessness by Elizabeth Svoboda

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Stories of heroes are all over the news: First responders and even concerned passersby put themselves in harm’s way to help others, going against every instinct for self-preservation. What could explain such selfless acts? Even Charles Darwin struggled to understand the evolutionary upside of self-sacrifice.

Svoboda, a science writer, takes an in-depth look at some of the scientists who study altruism and what they are finding. Brain scans (including one of Svoboda) reveal that people who envision themselves giving to charity show neurological responses similar to the effects of taking an addictive drug. It’s ironic, Svoboda writes, that acts of selflessness can stem from such self-centered motivations.

Svoboda also chronicles tales of ordinary people who give of themselves regularly. These inspiring case studies show how selfless attitudes can be developed or strengthened.

Not everyone comes through when the opportunity for altruism calls. But research shows that, as in many endeavors, practice increases the likelihood of success. By starting out with small acts of altruism—donating small amounts to charity or mentoring at-risk youth an hour or two each week—people can become more comfortable with the idea of stepping up to a major challenge.

Studies also suggest that by helping other people, altruists not only get pleasure and enhance their mood, but also boost their health and maybe even extend their lives. In that sense, this could be the ultimate self-help book. You’ve just got to put it down and help someone else first.

Current, 2013, 225 p., $27.95

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