May 29, 2007
Altruism hard-wired to pleasure centers in brain
Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the US government National Institutes of Health have shown that helping others makes us happy and that altruism is hard-wired into the brain, according to the Washington Post.
When volunteers were asked to imagine two scenarios — keeping a large amount of cash for themselves or giving it away — the more generous scenario activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.
Altruism, the study suggests, arises not as the result of high-minded philosophy, but is wired into the brain.
The study represents one more way in which scientific research — and particularly brain-imaging — is illuminating the way in which human beings are inherently wired for moral decision-making. Research by Professor David Richardson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown that cultivating lovingkindness and compassion leads to a greater sense of wellbeing.
Neuroscientist neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues have also recently shown that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers. Such brain-damaged patients lacked the moral qualms most people experience when making choices that harm some people but bring benefits to others, and adopted a cold and clinical form of decision-making.
As a results of other studies Harvard researcher Marc Hauser has proposed that people in all cultures have similar moral processing mechanisms, although the way that these manifest is culturally conditioned.
The sum total of these research studies suggests that empathy is not only the key to moral behavior, but that it is also a way of becoming happier. By performing or even just imagining acts that benefit others we directly benefit ourselves. This confirms the experience of generations of meditation practitioners who have found that lovingkindness and compassion meditation brings feelings of happiness and even bliss.