Wired for altruism

The WP has a great story on researching human’s altruistic nature called If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. When we give, it activates a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots — such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman’s experiment — that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior.

They also have some interesting bits on how damaged brains react to tests, and how different parts of our brains clash with each other over difficult moral questions. Well worth the read.

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