Geared for Generosity

(Editor’s note: This article is from a Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

To be human is to be kind. Selfishness is learned. Scientists from Oxford to UCLA, Michigan and beyond are proving this and that the brain has areas for smiling and empathy, but not cruelty — which is always a disorder. Kindness — throughout human existence, science tells us that this has always been the mechanism that ensures our survival.

A recent best-selling book, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, revolves around that topic. These octogenarians point out — and science is now proving — that the more we activate our brain’s centers of generosity and empathy, the longer and happier lives we live. Both men point out that giving or volunteering has been found to be a better antidote for depression than exercise.

The Dalai Lama says, “I believe basic human nature is gentleness. Making more money is at the root of human corruption.” One of the scientists leading the research into the neuroscience of generosity in the U.S., Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles Brain Mapping Center, agrees with him. Iacoboni, who shared a scientific platform with the Tibetan Buddhist leader in Australia said, “We are wired for empathy. We are not individualists struggling for survival with selfish minds; people are good. We have finally discovered a system in the brain that shows that evolution allows us to connect with others in a simple way.” It possibly evolved with the simple act of grasping, when evolution honed the ability for our thumbs to grasp, that we would watch and learn from others.

In conversation with the Dalai Lama, Iacoboni continued, “Scientists realized that ‘mirror neurons’ fire when a monkey is watching someone else. It is almost as though the monkey watching you is watching themselves. It is as if they feel; I can understand your intentions, and this is the basis of social interactions. There are brain cells for smiling, cells for sad expressions; this brings us to the field of empathy. These cells can be important for imitation and for a variety of things, they are also important for creating a social connection between people, especially when we are face-to-face; while we are talking our mirror neurons are getting fired up and we are connecting.”

“Human beings are built to empathize. The more empathetic you are, the more you activate certain brain regions,” said Iacoboni. Functional MRIs reveal that activity in a posterior portion of the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex/basal forebrain (sgACC) drives learning when we are in a prosocial context. Dr. Patricia Lockwood at Oxford University explained, “Prosocial behaviors, or social behaviors that benefit other people, are a fundamental aspect of human interactions, essential for social bonding and cohesion. Empathic people learn more quickly when benefitting others, and their sgACC response is the most selective for prosocial learning.”

The seat of selfishness is the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse. When scientists under Iacoboni and Lockwood temporarily switched off this function in the brain of test subjects, they became significantly more generous. “It’s almost like these areas of the brain behave according to a neural Golden Rule,” Leonardo Christov-Moore, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. He furthered, “The more we vicariously experience the states of others, the more we appear to be inclined to treat them as we would ourselves.” In the study, the scientists temporarily disabled parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex with 40 seconds of theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in which a magnetic coil placed near the head sends electrical currents to specific brain regions. The scientists targeted two areas in the prefrontal cortex, then the participants were given money to distribute among a group of people via computer profiles. The results showed that temporarily shutting down the prefrontal cortex did wonders for people’s generosity — they were about 50 percent more generous with their money than participants in the control group.

Iacoboni says that, “when you talk about compassion you are talking about something more complex” — basically the more you use it, the more that area of the brain develops — and “you reach higher levels of compassion. In the Western world we are focused on the individual, Eastern philosophy is focused on the collective or us.”

Iacoboni told Brain World that for the past two decades he has been studying “mirror neurons and what they mean for human nature and sociality. One of the most interesting critiques we got over the years on our research was ‘so what?’ What do you do with mirror neurons? The obvious answer is the type of pre-reflective, emotional empathy that is exemplified in ‘emotional contagion’ — catching the emotions of others like catching a cold. I see you falling from a bike and I have an immediate reaction that makes me feel your pain. Yet, these reactions are short-lived. On the face of it, they don’t matter for more complex human behaviors, like starting a nonprofit to help villagers in remote places in Africa.

“Indeed, Dan Kahnemann’s work on ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow,’ for which he got the Nobel Prize, led us to think that we have two main modes of thinking, and that mirror neurons belong to Type 1, or fast — automatic responses that are rather inflexible and short-lived. Yet, I was not convinced. I tend to be a lumper, not a splitter. I tend to see connections, rather than differences. I think that the fast [thinking] and slow thinking that humans show are actually heavily intertwined.

“That is, fast thinking is a bottom-up process that provides data [my reaction to you falling from a bike] for the slow thinking, which I think of as a top-down process to control my immediate, emotional reaction, so that I can act [make a decision] and do something good for you, which is helping you after you fell from the bike.”

(Editor’s note: This article is from a Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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