Chocolate and Acts of Kindness: No Difference to Your Brain
What gives you that feel-good feeling?
Are we hard-wired to be good people? Is helping our fellow man a natural instinct of our kind?
It's inviting to believe we share species-wide morality when we see U.N. rations drop into a destitute village or watch a rescue worker pull a toddler from a well. Altruism needn't come on such a grandiose scale, either; we feel the same swell of pride and humility from everyday overtures like shoveling the neighbor's walk or offering directions to a lost stranger.
Granted, we don't live it 24/7. Anyone who's spent more than five minutes on the phone with the cable company's customer service line has danced with his darker demons. But we know when we're morally and ethically on track.
Ethical behavior's effect on the brain
We know because the brain tells us so in its strange chemical language. Research in the young field of social neuroscience has revealed that the brain is activated in response to compassion and ethical behavior.
Several studies have focused on the brain's reward circuit to try to connect the dots between neurological function, emotion and ethics. The reward circuit is an interacting group of brain areas including the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a small region behind the forehead), and it's understood to be a hub of the brain's emotional network.
It's here that we manage reason and emotions like compassion and shame, and where we process pleasure in response to stimuli like an attractive face or a big bite of chocolate. Over the past two years, studies have linked the reward circuit to altruism, the perception of justice, and a sense of fairness.
Another study by world-class neuroscientists suggests the same area of the brain is engaged in deeper moral judgments. Working with 30 subjects, researchers posed classic morality scenarios such as: If one person in a life raft had to be thrown over so that several others could live, could you toss her over?
Each of the six subjects who had suffered injuries to the prefrontal cortex—and only those six—responded without reservation that they were willing to harm one individual to save themselves and the others.
"In those circumstances most people without this specific brain damage will be torn," said one author of the study. "But these particular subjects seem to lack that conflict." The research has been noted for linking the block of emotions with a failure of moral judgment.
Studies on oxytocin (more widely recognized for its role in childbirth and parent/child bonding) also have linked brain activity with higher moral functions. Acts of selflessness, the touch of another's hand, the glance of a mother into her newborn baby's eyes—all are known to trigger release of the hormone, which in turn promotes the release of dopamine. The flooding of dopamine into the brain's reward center elicits that warm surge of satisfaction we get from doing good things or being in the company of people we love and trust. It's the pleasure response.
While these findings represent some terrific leaps in neuroscience, they also stir up some troubling questions. People get uneasy when science rubs up against philosophy or, heaven forbid, theology.
We've taken it on good scientific authority that all stimuli and responses course through the brain. Yet we still credit our loftier inclinations to the mind, the soul, or even to the heart. We say music is "good for the soul" or that a child's smile "fills the heart" with joy. No one ascribes a vision of peace and brotherhood to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex. No romantic wants to equate a flow of emotion with a flow of oxytocin.
While this all may sound like groundwork for an argument that we are a robotic and soulless race, science is not laying claim to the impulses at the origin of ethical thought. Neither has it been able to find a clear evolutionary advantage for all of these brain reactions, suggesting humans are wired for more than survival of the species.
This line of study does approach an understanding of how humans process moral and ethical choices. Structures and chemicals in the brain help set the magnet of our moral compass. But so too do we feel within ourselves something greater than ourselves.