Within the never-ending debate of science vs. religion, morality – and altruism, in particular – always emerges as a sub-point; more specifically, does religion teach us altruism? Many religions believe that without religion altruism, and giving, is not in the cards; while the scientific point of view concludes that altruism and giving are innate and programmed in our genes.
Important to this debate is the fact that science has lacked well-researched studies in this particular field. Biologists such as Richard Dawkins, or even his predecessors such as Darwin, did show there are positive effects to giving; in fact, they evidenced that altruism is not as selfless as it might seem! Furthermore, altruism is in line with the theory of evolution. However, actual DNA proof was hard to find and social pressures could never be taken out of the overall equation of the “Give vs. Get” debate.
In other words, until recently, it was hard to pinpoint exactly where genetic predisposition controls our behavior and where education, be it religious or secular, controls.
The Brain Built For Generosity
Elizabeth Svoboda, a published author wrote “The Surprising Science of Selflessness”; Svoboda argues that scientists have found proof that the brain itself is built for generous behavior. The finding does not contradict the selfish and contradictory make-up of genes even though on the surface it looks like it contradicts Richard Dawkins highly regarded book “The Selfish Gene”; in truth, there has always been a certain lack of understanding about how genes operate, thus, while we describe genes as selfish, we have to understand that this is just a way of looking at them. As we analyze and interpret we almost apply human qualities to what actually is just code, which cannot be guided by high level morality laws.
But, to get back to the science of “Give vs. Get” the actual finding Elizabeth Svoboda has revealed is that there is brain circuitry that regulates behavior and that “pushes” us towards altruism! So, even without nurture and education, the brain is pre-programmed and has dedicated paths that regulate altruism, selflessness.
Jordan Grafman has been a leading researcher in empathy as a consequence of brain activity. He also looked at brain functions that are natural and specialized. In one of his studies, Grafman had 19 subjects inserted into an fMRI machine, and they were asked to take a decision of whether or not they would donate money to a number of characters that were shown to them. In order to make the decision, however, the subjects had to take money out of a reward they would receive, so this enforced the test and made it real – the decision actually had real consequences.
What the studies have shown is when a decision to donate was made, the brain released dopamine, the chemical that regulates pleasure sensations.
Also, high activity in the brain, in its mid-section was discovered , activity that is also present in the brain when an individual is feeling good. The subgenual region was also under fire, a portion of the brain that is generally associated with food and sex cravings, and this portion was highly functional when the subject decided to give.
Another portion of the brain, classically associated with making complex judgments was also highly active, which shows that the decision was not an automated one, it actually went through the individual’s classic path of decision making.
In another study, a forth part of the brain – the nucleus accumbens was also active in the process of giving, and the surprising part is that this portion of the brain is also active when a subject deals with a surprise reward. Also, this region of the brain produced dopamine.
So, as it was discovered, the brain is not only built for giving, but the process is actually one that produces pleasure. In other words, this demonstrates that helping others is an experience that is not only morally, intellectually satisfying, but in fact it is an act that gives one pleasure.
So, indeed, science proves that our own genetic make-up, selfish as it might be considered, gives rise to a brain that is wired to give; giving is almost more satisfying than getting, receiving, and the brain treats both activities with the same pleasurable release of dopamine.