Neurobiology and the Selfless Impulse

The science of doing good. Can neurobiology uncover the anatomical basis for selflessness? Photo: Pyramidal neurons of mouse cortex by Tobias Bonhöffer

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2012 — Life is full of situations that pit good against evil; some are personal and may be deceptively banal like a decision to help a neighbor; others, like the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa are writ large. 

As a member of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s job to interview Eugene de Kock, a man who had confessed to monstrous crimes, and who was known to the country’s black population as ‘prime evil’. 

What Pumla found when she visited him in his jail cell was far from what she had expected. Her first surprise was to find de Kock in an anguished state of remorse; but what really stood Pumla’s world on its head was that she found herself sympathizing with him. 

I reached out and touched his shaking hand”, she said, “just responding to a human moment someone feeling a sense of pain and my being drawn to respond to touch him with my heart, with my hand — to kind of indicate my sense of empathy or my sense of sympathy. I don’t know, it’s just that human quality that draws us into community with others who are in pain.

In reaching out to a person Pumla had expected to despise, Pumla was embodying one of Christ’s most important teachings. By both His Example and through His Word, Christ taught us the importance of having compassion for others, even to the point of forgiving our enemies:

 “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45)

Recent studies in the field of Neuroscience have been looking to uncover the anatomical basis for charity and empathy. The scientists in question are well aware that this is a contentious area, representing a convergence between science and religion: “Eventually, you are bound to get into areas that for thousands of years we have preferred to keep mystical, “ said Jordan Grafman, “Some of the questions that are important are not just of intellectual interest, but challenging and frightening to the ways we ground our lives.

Neuroscience, or neurobiology as it is sometimes called, is the study of how the brain works. Neuroscientists, often working hand in hand with psychologists, carry out experiments designed to identify the regions of the brain used when people engage in certain types of behavior.

In a study published in 2006, neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman carried out an experiment in which functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was used to map the parts of the brain that were activated when their subjects engaged in acts of charity. 

What they discovered surprised them: they found that when their subjects either received money or gave it away, the primitive reward sections of the brain – the same ones that deal with food and sex - lit up. This was the first evidence that the pleasure received from giving had an anatomical (and very old) basis in the brain. Even more interesting for Grafman was what happened when their subjects helped others at their own expense. They found that the area of the brain being utilized was the so-called subgenual cortex, a part of the brain that Grafman describes as “uniquely human”, and which is thought to be associated with social bonding.  

The next year another study was published, this one led by Dharol Tankersley, in which the posterior superior temporal cortex was also identified as being engaged during charitable acts. This region is recognized as the part of the brain that enables us to identify another person’s thoughts and goals as real and distinct from our own (without it our lives would be hopelessly solipsistic). 

One of the researchers, Scott Huettel, theorized how the evolution of charity might have been linked to this faculty, ascribing it’s evolution to, “the simple recognition that that thing over there is a person that has intentions and goals, and therefore, I might want to treat them like I might want them to treat myself. 

There is an obvious similarity here with Christ’s exhortation to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, and it may well be that a clue to a biological basis for that teaching lies in these reports. 

Such studies also demonstrate the inextricable link between charity and empathy, and the deep seated regions from which these impulses originate. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s experience in finding herself offering comfort - almost despite herself - is a good example of the power of these regions of the brain to over-rule our conscious minds and allow us to bridge divides we would normally consider unthinkable. 

Christ’s message does not suffer from these investigations; indeed for me understanding the biological wellsprings of empathy and charity only reinforces the power of the message – I know that beneath the dross of my normal existence these springs exist; Christ in His infinite wisdom teaches me to let them flow. This is convergence and it is good news for believers and non-believers alike. 


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Jasper Macmasters

Jasper seeks to make sense of the human condition from wherever truth and knowledge can be found. He is guided by the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”

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