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Giving to Charities: Science or Adam and Eve?

Giving Behavior May Result From Learning; Not Just Brain Hard-Wiring

Does identifying areas of the brain that are activated by certain feelings or actions give us more insight into human behavior? And if a behavior seems to reside in an area of the brain, does this mean the brain is hard-wired for that behavior and we humans are not exercising free will when we make choices?

I don't think so, however the media keep churning out articles implying that a person's choice to behave in a certain way is really no choice at all, but rather is the result of brain hard-wiring. This presents us with a cause-and-effect dilemma: Does a hard-wired brain make us behave in a certain fashion or is our behavior independent of brain localization?

One good example of this cause-and-effect dilemma is found in an article by Elizabeth Svoboda in The Wall Street Journal of Saturday/Sunday, Aug. 31 and September 1, 2013 titled “Hard-Wired for Giving.” The headline states that scientists have identified the precise brain circuits behind our urge to give, and this helps us to understand the motivation for giving behavior.

There is a clear implication here that the brain is in control and we humans are following directions willy-nilly from the brain –– which is calling the shots, so to speak.

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Svoboda reports on research where subjects were placed inside an MRI scanner and given a list of charities they could donate money to. They could also refuse to donate the money or add the money to a separate reward account they could take home. The decision to donate to worthy organizations comes from the same region of the brain that controls cravings for food and sex, and that region becomes active when subjects choose to add money to their separate reward account.

Another study indicates that the effect of giving to charity is neurologically similar to ingesting an addictive drug. But this area also has receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding.

So if we are hardwired for generosity does this mean our individual choices to give money to charities or do volunteer work are not choices at all? Are we merely responding to brain hard-wiring, even if this charitable urge challenges the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest?

While this research is interesting, and the ability to localize and pinpoint areas of the brain that are activated by certain behaviors may be helpful in medicine and rehabilitation, I don't think this gives evidence that free will does not exist and that man is bound by brain hard-wiring. In the first place, we have discovered over the past 30 years that the brain is, in fact, soft-wired. It changes in response to repetitious behaviors. Our choices and behaviors can cause areas of the brain to expand or become more robust.

This is why I have concern about the overexposure of young children to certain electronic games. Repeated exposure and resulting behavior can influence brain function so that children playing aggressive games exhibit more aggressiveness, at least in research studies. But it also means that children who are taught to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” by volunteering and giving to charities, will increase brain capacity for giving and helping others.

Yes, giving behavior makes people feel good. And why shouldn't it? People are complex organisms. There are many reasons and motivations for giving. Some people give because they believe it is an important value while others may give because of pressure, prestige or –– because they need tax deductions!

What is so remarkable about finding an area in the brain that is activated by a certain behavior or behaviors? All thoughts, feelings and behaviors are related to the brain. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that giving behaviors activate certain areas of the brain. How does pinpointing this brain location give us significant insight into human behavior?

Ah, but later on in the article we find that not all research subjects reacted the same way, with some showing more activation of brain areas than others. The chief researcher figured they were probably experiencing different levels of satisfaction from giving. Also, subjects who were identified as egoists, because they showed less activation of brain areas on seeing money being given to charities, surprised the researchers with donation rates that exceeded those predicted by their CAT scans.

And, toward the end of the Journal article, the author concedes that environmental influences and individual initiative also play a role in tipping us toward selflessness and giving.

I've warned previously about Scientism, which is using research studies to make claims about free will and religion. I can envision some readers going away from this newspaper article convinced that people's behavior is determined by a hard-wired brain and not spiritual or humanistic values.

Following that concern, I am reminded of Wendell Berry's Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Berry criticizes scientists who believe the mind is just a machine. He calls this the Tarzan theory of the mind, which holds that a human, raised entirely by apes, would have a mind nonetheless fully human. He substitutes what he calls the Adam and Eve formula: mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community.

Scientists are convinced that someday their research will answer macro-philosophical questions about God and man. “It’s only a matter of time,” they claim.

Yes, time will tell –– but don't hold your breath!

Mack Hicks, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age.

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