How the Altruistic Brain Impacts Our Behavior

We’re predisposed to doing the right thing for others because it’s generally the best thing for all.

JHDT Productions/ Shutterstock
JHDT Productions/ Shutterstock

No single component of wisdom or becoming wise is more  essetial than prosocial behavior, doing things that benefit others  or the society as a whole (and thus, you too). These are driven  by traits like empathy, compassion, and altruism. To repeat the  definitions of these terms, empathy is the ability to understand  and share the feelings and thoughts of another, compassion involves translating empathy into helpful behavior, and altruism refers to actions to help another person without expecting any  external rewards.  

Humans are social animals. By and large, we do not fare well  alone — at least not for any significant length of time. We need  the presence of people, a fact we ignore at our own peril as we  invent new ways to not spend time with others, from gated  communities and nursing homes to online shopping, Netflix, and  countless cell phone apps that do not require you to actually look  at or physically speak to another person.  

Among teens, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey,  58 percent texted friends via smartphone as their preferred means  of communication. Only 10 percent favored phone calls. Young  adults between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5  messages on a normal day, or roughly 3,200 texts per month.  

There is a certain irony here. In 2020, the phrase “social distancing” assumed widespread familiarity as countries, governments,  and communities sought to slow and halt the spread of the novel  coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. Social  distancing in the time of coronavirus required standing at least six  feet from other people—the estimated space required for exhaled  droplets to fall harmlessly to the ground. As a public health tool for  battling viral spread, it was and is effective. But what we’re really  talking about here is not social, but rather physical distancing. 

The need to socialize with others is especially critical in difficult times. We need one another for support, guidance, advice, and  wisdom. So there’s an extra dash of irony in that while we often  bemoan the excessive use of devices and social media, fingers wagging at millennials and young people, the ability to call, text, email,  FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and more helped everyone better cope  when we were compelled to remain physically distant. When physical closeness was prohibited, virtual closeness through technology  became the primary vehicle for social connectedness. 

But to live and do well in groups means knowing how to get along  with numerous individuals around you, literally or not, related or  not. This is perhaps more challenging to achieve than ever before.  We are, if we allow ourselves to be, exposed to many more kinds of  people, many more diverse cultures, societies, and points of view.  True wisdom and grace require an open mind and heart. Prosocial  behaviors ensure individual benefits through the common good. 

In his 2015 book The Altruistic Brain, Donald Pfaff, a professor and  neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, writes that human beings are “wired” to be good in the same way we are “wired” to acquire  natural language. Pfaff believes we are inherently more inclined to  be philanthropic than self- serving. 

The argument is based on what Pfaff calls the “altruistic brain  theory,” which says the brain processes altruism in steps, all rooted  in basic, well- understood neurocognitive mechanisms that have  evolved to promote prosocial behavior.  

Again, the idea is an artifact and necessity of evolution: Humans  are born “prematurely” in comparison to other apes and animals. Human young require lots of care over many years, which  in turn demands the involvement of lots of people, from parents  to grandparents to distant kin and surrounding communities—it  takes a village. 

As a result, to quote the developmental psychologist Michael  Tomasello as Pfaff does: “To an unprecedented degree, Homo sapiens are adapted for acting and thinking cooperatively in cultural groups,  and indeed all of humans’ most impressive cognitive achievements— from complex technologies to linguistic and mathematical symbols  to intricate social institutions—are the products not of individuals  acting alone, but of individuals interacting.” 

In other words, we’re predisposed to doing the right thing for  others because it’s generally the best thing for all. 

Promoting the common good and rising above self- interests are  recognized by diverse cultures, old and new, as essential components of wisdom. Prosocial attitudes and behaviors such as empathy,  compassion, social cooperation, and altruism have been esteemed  and emulated throughout recorded history.  

From the book WISER: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good, with Scott LaFee © © 2020 Dilip Jeste, used with permission from the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc. 

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