Carnegie heroes and the neuroscience behind acts of heroism

Scott Pelley meets with Carnegie Hero Fund awardees and reports on a possible difference in brain make-up for those who commit heroic acts.

What's in the heads of heroes?
What's in the heads of heroes? 13:36

In 1904, 180 Americans were trapped by fire in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Two heroes went in to save them, but the rescuers and all but one of the miners perished. Still, that act of heroism touched one of the richest Americans of all time, a man whose steel mills were fired by coal. Andrew Carnegie donated more than $100 million, in today's money, to recognize heroes in the U.S. and Canada. A good deal has changed in 117 years; thousands have been awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal and advances in neuroscience are revealing why some of us may be heroic. We'll get to the science, but first, meet some of the Carnegie Heroes, including Terryann Thomas.

Terryann Thomas: I remember thinking just almost instantly, "I am not gonna let somebody die."

Terryann Thomas was a civilian overseeing confiscated property at the headquarters of the Topeka Police Department. In 2015, an agitated man came into the basement property room to demand his bicycle. Thomas turned to find it. 

Terryann Thomas: As soon as I turned around and started to walk off, I heard a scream. 

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The scream came from officer Tammy Walter. For reasons we don't know, she'd been attacked by the man in the property room waiting area. Thomas hit a panic alarm and charged out of her locked room. 

Terryann Thomas: And so, as I ran out there, I saw there was blood on the wall and she was down. And she was not moving. And I went over there, and I pulled him off of her. He looked at me and he punched me in the face.  He turned around and he started back on her. He's kicking her while she's on the ground, and constantly punching her, so I went and grabbed him again and I pulled him off.

Help was slow in coming. It seems no one had triggered the panic alarm before. So, the cops upstairs weren't sure what it meant.

Terryann Thomas: He grabbed something off her gun belt. And I thought, "Okay, he has her gun, this whole thing has just changed." He hit the elevator button and he looked at me and he said, "You're coming with me."

Later, it turned out it was the officer's radio the man had, not her gun, but Thomas didn't know that in the fight.

Scott Pelley: What happened then?

Terryann Thomas: And so I put my foot in the door. It opened up. And with everything I had, I grabbed him and I pulled him outta the elevator. And just as soon as we got out, I ran to the door. I opened it and I just started screaming.  And that's when all the officers came in and took him down.

A Topeka cop reported that story to the Pittsburgh headquarters of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Eric Zahren is president of the commission. He's a former Secret Service agent.  

Eric Zahren: Well we look at up to 1,000 cases a year. And we award about just a little over 10% of that. So, in recent years, that equates to about 80 cases a year.

Scott Pelley: How do you define, "hero?"

Eric Zahren: And we define it as, at least in terms of our medal-awarding requirement, as a man or a woman that willingly and knowingly risks their life to an extraordinary degree to save or attempt to save the life of another human being.

Scott Pelley: What are some of the things that your investigators go through when they're investigating a case?

Eric Zahren: We write to or contact police departments, fire departments, the victim in the case, who was the rescued party, and other eyewitnesses to the act and we start to build an understanding of each case.

The Carnegie Medal, molded in bronze, comes with $5,500 and other financial support.

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  Eric Zahren

Eric Zahren: We also pay for funeral costs fully for a hero that is killed in the act. We pay any medical costs for any injury that they incur, to include psychological after-effects, PTSD. We don't present a medal and walk away. We stay there. And we stay there for the hero's lifetime and sometimes far beyond. I mean, we were recently looking at a case that, you know-- a gentleman was killed in his heroic act. And we supported his wife, and then one of his daughters for a total of 72 years until his daughter died.

Pete Pontzer: On the beach on that day, I just reacted. 

Pete Pontzer fit the Carnegie definition of hero. He was on a North Carolina beach in 2015 when someone pointed to a boy swept away by a rip current. Pontzer and another man swam about 150 yards.

Pete Pontzer: And we found a young teenager, 13-year-old boy. And water was starting to wash over his face.

Pete Pontzer: As we get to the beach, a church youth group leader comes out and meets with us. And he says, "Thank you. There's another one." 

A second boy was drowning. 

Pontzer ran, broke his foot, ignored it, and swam out. He eventually lost sight of the boy but the child was pulled from the water by others and flown to a hospital.

Scott Pelley: So why you?

Pete Pontzer: I didn't think about it. It's kind of like if you put your hand on a hot stove and pull it back right away without thinking. That's kind of what it was like for me. It just needed to be done and I did it.

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  Pete Pontzer

It was the same reaction for David McCartney when fate arrived on a two-lane road in Indiana.

David McCartney: I was heading south. And there was a vehicle that seemed like it was going a little bit left, a little bit right. Then all of a sudden, it went right. And it hit a culvert.

Scott Pelley: What happened next?

David McCartney: You could start seeing smoke, it was starting to bellow out and you could start hearing, Miss Testerman, who I come to find out, was starting to scream because the vehicle was actually starting to catch on fire.

Elizabeth Testerman was trapped. 

David McCartney: She's sitting there screaming. Underneath, the dash is on fire. The smoke's just going through your nose. And you're trying to figure out, well, what to do now.

McCartney and another man kicked in her windshield and cut her seatbelt with a knife.

David McCartney: We pull her feet out. And then we kinda wiggle up to that windshield that was kicked out. And then we pulled her over to the grass and laid her down.

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  David McCartney

A minute later, he told us, the car exploded. That fear of dying in a car is well known to Abigail Marsh. She's not a hero but she was saved by one. At age 19, she was on an interstate at night and swerved to miss a dog. She went into a spin which left her facing lanes of high-speed traffic in a car she couldn't restart.

Dr. Abigail Marsh: And I spent some amount of time 100% certain I was about to die. I mean, I was, SNAP you know, any one of these cars hadn't swerved in time, and I definitely woulda been dead.

Scott Pelley: What happened?

Dr. Abigail Marsh: I hear a rap on the passenger side window and I see a man's face staring into my car. And he said, "You look like you could use some help." 

The stranger got her car started and drove her to safety. His act of heroism led her to become Dr. Abigail Marsh, a neuroscientist who studies what gets into the heads of heroes. At Georgetown University, she has published studies on the brains of two kinds of people -- psychopaths who have no compassion for others and people who have so much compassion that they donated a kidney to a stranger. She found a striking difference in a pair of tiny structures near the bottom of the brain called the amygdalae. They subconsciously recognize danger and react faster than conscious thought. 

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  Dr. Abigail Marsh

Dr. Abigail Marsh: One of the big things that we know they do is they're responsible for generating the experience of fear. What's interesting about that is that, not only is the amygdala essential for giving you the experience of fear, it seems to allow you to empathize with other people's fear

As her subjects were scanned, Marsh showed them emotional faces. 

Dr. Abigail Marsh: And whereas people who are psychopathic show very minimal responses in the amygdala when they see a frightened face. People who have given kidneys to strangers have an exaggerated response in the amygdala, which we think means that they are more sensitive than most people to others' distress, better at interpreting when other people are in distress. More likely to pick up on it. 

Perhaps like the man who saved her on the freeway.

Scott Pelley: No telling how many psychopaths drove past you that night. (LAUGHTER)

We wondered whether our Carnegie Heroes were born heroic. Was there a difference in their brains? All three volunteered for Dr. Marsh's scans.

Dr. Abigail Marsh: To my-- I'm not gonna lie, it was I was really pleased and gratified by what we found in the heroic rescuers, which is that, just like the altruistic kidney donors, their amygdalas were larger than average and significantly more responsive to the sight of somebody else in distress. Which makes so much sense, I mean, you know these are the people who, when they saw somebody terrified because they thought they were about to die, they didn't just sit there. 

Scott Pelley: You know, they have all told us that they sprang into action, as you say, without thinking. 

David McCartney: You don't think, you just-- you're strictly acting

Pete Pontzer: I didn't think about it. 

Terryann Thomas: I didn't even think about it.

Dr. Abigail Marsh: It really makes sense when you think about how ancient and deep in our brain structures like the amygdala are. And I wouldn't want to say that the amygdala is where altruism is in the brain. It's one link in a very long chain of events that's happening that takes us from seeing that somebody's in danger to actually acting to help them. But we know that it's definitely an essential link in that chain whether you are a mouse or a rat or a dog or a human it's performing the same functions at a really deep, fast, subconscious level. 

Carnegie Hero on donating kidney to a strange... 02:33

If the act of heroism is a sprint, the consequences are a marathon. For David McCartney it was for the better. He's the first to admit he wasn't a good man. In the past, he'd pleaded guilty to battery. But he promised the woman he pulled from the burning car that he would do good. And in 2019, he donated a kidney.

Scott Pelley: Who did the kidney go to?

David McCartney: I have no clue. 

On the other hand, for Terryann Thomas, heroism has been troubling, she wasn't able to go back to work in the police property room.

Terryann Thomas: I had a hard time. I still have a hard time. 

And it's been a hard time for pete pontzer who was left with regret. That second boy he could not reach, was flown to a hospital, but did not survive. 

Pete Pontzer: A hero would've gotten the second one as well. And that's a challenge that I always live with. I just couldn't get the second kid.

His regret was coupled with curiosity about the boy he saved six years ago. The boy whose name he never knew.

Scott Pelley: The young man that you saved is named Sebastian Prokop. And we found him. And he had something that he wanted to say to you. So let me introduce you. 

Sebastian Prokop in video: I'm Sebastian Prokop. I'm 18. I recently graduated from high school and I'm working toward going to college, getting a car, all that good stuff. Thank you to the one who pulled me out and let me be able to achieve all the milestones that I've got and that I plan to get.

Pete Pontzer: Thank you, Scott. 

Scott Pelley: What is it like to see him today?

Pete Pontzer: It kinda takes my breath away, Scott. It helps to bring some closure and some help.

Help for heroes has been the mission of the Carnegie Fund for 117 years, it has bestowed 10,000 medals and awarded $40 million. Back in 1904, Andrew Carnegie sensed what science has now confirmed. Heroes, he said, cannot be created—they act on an impulse—a mysterious gift to the few.

Produced by Aaron Weisz. Associate producer, Ian Flickinger. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Craig Crawford.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"