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May 30, 2007

If It Feels Good, Do It!

I was intrigued by this Washington Post piece over the weekend which suggests the human brain is hardwired for altruism. Neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health asked volunteers to "think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves." Their brain scans revealed that "when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that supresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable" (which is probably why we have the phrase, "Give until it feels good." It really does feel good.).

Neurologists are, the Post says, "using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass." The research is showing "that morality has biological roots...that have been around for a very long time."

Predictably, neuroscientists say this apparent hard-wiring for altruism is "most likely the result of "evolutionary processes that began in other species." (Which immediately brought to mind those nature programs that show sea lions killing younger siblings so they can continue nursing, and big cats killing the offpsring of competitors so the cubs' mother will be willing to mate with them. Animals are NOT altruistic, excepting mothers who die to protect their offspring.)

The Post quotes Joshua Green, a neuroscientist and philosopher who says experiements such as the one described above suggests that morality is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.

I don't know about that. One explanation for the fact that humans appear to be hardwired for morality is that a loving, self-giving God who made humans in His image designed us that way. Such a design undergirds God's commands regarding how we are to treat one another. He intends us to care for the poor, the sick, and the needy, for those in prison, for orphans and widows--and His design of the human brain apparently follows this divine plan. So--we have a brain designed for altruism, and Christian clergy to teach us how to direct this impulse. 

Of course, if your intellectual spam filter blocks any consideration of God, then naturally you're going to see this fascinating research as just another aspect of our evolutionary history.

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I read this article and wondered when it'd pop up here! I agree that a neurological wiring towards moral behavior certainly says nothing about the existence of God (other than God is good and "wired" us towards good).

I would like to add though that altruism IS found in animals.

* Dogs adopt unrelated young, even of other species.
* Some types of monkeys warn others of an oncoming predator with a warning call, even though doing so attracts attention to them.
* Animals have been observed putting themselves in harm's way to rescue another (unrelated) animal in distress.

I know there are more but that would require looking back through my college notes (and finding them first!).

Regardless of whether "moral behavior" is a part of our makeup as biological organisms, we still have a CHOICE on how to act. And I think as you pointed out, that's what really matters.


We must remember that God did not create nature red in tooth and claw, but it is that way because of the curse of the Fall.

We humans are also so affected, which is why we do not automatically do what is Good.

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