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Most of us know someone, or maybe we are someone, who "gives 'til it hurts." Sometimes, however, pathological generosity results from brain damage.

Recently wire services all over the world carried the story of mysterious symptoms of a Brazilian man identified only as Mr. A, after he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, damage to part of his brain following a rupture to a blood vessel.

Losing a Job and Giving One's Possessions Away

According to news accounts, the 49-year-old Brazilian suffered damage to a "subcortical" part of his brain that controls executive function, the higher-level thinking we all do when we make various life decisions. Mr. A's brain functions seemed largely to have returned as he recovered from his stroke, except for excessive generosity.

Mr. A, his doctors told the press, made indiscriminate gifts of food, drink, and money after he left the hospital. Because of his compulsive generosity, he was let go from his managerial job with a major corporation.

Mr. A said he didn't care. "Life is too short," he told his doctors, to worry about material things.

Some doctors have commented that personality changes after stroke are common, although excessive generosity "appears to be unique." However, the phenomenon is not entirely unknown in brain science.

Excessive Generosity May Be a Problem with Impulse Control

In February 2013, scientists doing research at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands reported findings of their studies of excessive generosity in rodents. The Dutch researchers looked at the role of a part of the brain known as the amygdala in economic decisions. The amygdala as a whole, on the basis of studies with laboratory rodents, is well known as the part of the brain that exerts impulse control. In people, however, portions of the amygdala seem also to regulate trust.

When a person with a normally functioning amygdala meets a potential recipient of a gift or a potential partner in a business transaction as trustworthy, then giving that person something of value may be considered economically rational.

Trustworthy people are likely to reciprocate when the tables are turned.

When a person who does not have a normally functioning amygdala meets a potential recipient of a gift or a potential partner in a business transaction, there may not be any thought given to whether the recipient or partner is trustworthy. This person may be disinclined to care whether the recipient of possessions will ever give them back, or whether the recipient is "worthy" of the gift.

People who have a normally functioning amygdala will "back off" from further interaction when their goodwill is not reciprocated, but people who have damage to this part of the brain will give even more.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Ferreira-Garcia R, Fontenelle LF, Moll J, de Oliveira-Souza R. Pathological generosity: An atypical impulse control disorder after a left subcortical stroke. Neurocase. 2013 Aug 20.
  • Smith J. Brazilian stroke victim cannot stop helping others after developing pathological generosity because of changes in the brain. Daily Maily Online,, accessed 11 September 2013.
  • van Honk J, Eisenegger C, Terburg D, Stein DJ, Morgan B. Generous economic investments after basolateral amygdala damage. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Feb 12. 110(7):2506-10. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217316110. Epub 2013 Jan 22.
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