Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gotta Give To Get?

"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "For it is in giving that we receive." But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe's head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry -- rather than free will -- might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.From Here.


Underground Baker said...

Hi Candy,
I was feeling down in the dumps the other day at the airport, and decided I just needed to help someone to feel better.
I helped an old lady get her carry on bags up over the curb, meanwhile the bus drove away with her suitcases.
It took me 45 minutes to get everything retrieved, and after it was all done I felt so much better, and definately out of the dumps.

mister anchovy said...

Science is a reasonable way of examining the world, but I like painting best.

felix said...

I like that. Ah-lot.

Perhaps the finding that caring for others is deeply pleasurable, hard-wired as you say, explains the survival of the species itself. Society is a means for perpetuating the species, supported by this basic drive.

Doing good is good for you. Yes.

Candy Minx said...

Underground Baker, I believe there is no room to get inside unless you give. It's like making room for more feelings. I love your airport story. I think you are very attuned to your needs to be able to process that you needed to help someone to get out of the dumps. People think if they are always helping their kids, their spouse, their neighbor...that is the same thing as charity and compassion. NO! Giving to our kids, our family and neighbours is our duty, it may feel good and is good to build up the bonds...but giving completely outside of ourselves is what makes us have the potential for happiness, love and peace.

Mister Anchovy, You know how I always say...it takes science decades, or longer, to figure out what "regualr" people already know. Actually, even monkeys and dogs know that "we do unto others as we would have done unto us"..that we give as good as we get. It's hilarious that science is alwys the last one to understand the nature of life and reality. But at least they slowly but surely catch up. Even as we type...science can not grasp and articulate concepts like "truth" "love" "justice" those are best represented in poetry. I prefer exploring the nature of reality through literature and art too.

Felix! Hi! I believe that certain cultures have placed too much importance on reason over emotions. Here we have research of a scientific nature (as opposed to experience, history, common sense) recognizing that our emotions and compassion may serve an evolutionary purpose. Also that spiritual thinking may have its roots in evolution as well is also being researched. Yes, being good to others does feel good and I believe it is a survival tactict as well for our own mental health.