How Goodness Helps The Body

I have discussed before the psychology and biology of altruism and compassion (see here and here). It seems more and more scientific evidence is pointing to both the naturalness and beneficence of kindness towards others — which is ultimately not all that surprising given the inherently social nature of our species. Communities starting from the family unit up thrive optimally when its members look after each other, are cooperative and harmonious, and cultivate a sense of togetherness and mutual trust.

The positive health effects, both mental and physical, help reinforce and reward this behavior, as well as signify how much better we thrive as individuals when we are not feeling stressed, insecure, or threatened by the predations of others. It goes without saying that not having to worry as much about crime, exploitation, and the other consequences of a cruel and predatory society wonders to your life satisfaction and overall well-being.

But a study at the University of California, Berkeley, part of the Greater Good Project, wants to look more deeply into what exactly happens to our minds and bodies when we either participant in a good deed or simply just witness one. Read the details and results below. It is a long excerpt but well worth reading. 

In this study, 104 college students watched a couple of videos depicting either heroic, compassionate acts or just amusing situations, while researchers took measurements of their heart rate and medial prefrontal cortex activity. Activity in the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with higher-level cognitive process, such as empathy and “theory of mind”—our ability to predict social behavior—and is thought to be involved in experiences of moral elevation.

The researchers also measured respiratory sinus arrhythmia, an indicator of activity in the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS (our calming, self-soothing system), while heart rate indicates activity in the sympathetic nervous system or SNS (our arousal, “fight or flight” system). Because PNS activity is associated with warm feelings towards others and bonding behavior, the researchers expected activation in the PNS during moral elevation. Their results showed a different pattern: During peak emotional points in the videos, participants who watched the elevation-inspiring videos experienced dual activation—increases in both the PNS and the SNS—while those watching the merely amusing videos did not experience either.

This dual activation during elevation surprised Sarina Saturn, a researcher at the Oregon State University and one of the authors in the study. “This is a really uncommon pattern, where you see both of these systems recruited for one emotion”, says Saturn, a former Hornaday Postdoctoral Fellow with the Greater Good Science Center.

After looking into the literature further, she says, the findings began to make sense. Dual activation of the PNS and SNS occurs in situations that involve attending to others in a prosocial way while also needing to stay alert and aroused, such as during parenting and sexual activity. Moral elevation must involve a similar pattern, which makes some sense: To see a compassionate act, we must witness suffering, and that’s stressful. However, once we see the suffering alleviated through an altruistic act, it calms our heart (through the PNS), allowing us to get past the stress and give us that pleasant, warm glow feeling. This feeling is probably what calms our hearts enough to give us the motivation to “pay it forward” by acting altruistically in the future.

“It’s kind of cool to see that what’s happening in your body is an impetus to prosociality and inspires people to give and be kind”, says Saturn. “I think we’ve known that anecdotally; but now it’s great to see what’s actually happening in the body and the brain”.

Saturn’s team was surprised by study results for prefrontal cortex activity, too: activity levels varied significantly from one elevation scenario to another. This could be explained by the fact that the two elevation scenarios were a bit different—one involved coming to the aid of a physically injured person and one didn’t. In this case, the scenario involving physical injury is what caused the prefrontal cortex to light up, suggesting that the cortex may only selectively play a role in elevation.

“Previous research has shown that when you see someone in pain, that part of the brain lights up—so that may explain it”, says Saturn. “There needs to be more work to see when the prefrontal cortex goes off and online in moral elevation”.

The findings add something tangible to philosophical observation that the good must come with the bad: witnessing harm, whether it is caused by nature or human evil, alerts us to the cruelties of the world and compels us to do something about it, especially when we are given a clear-cut example to follow.

This also speaks to the power of social conditioning: if you are reared in a social unit or community in which you see such examples play out, you are more likely to become attuned to suffering and more desirous to address it. Direct moral guidance is still important, but leading by example seems to biologically imprint ethics into others (or so I am interpreting the results to suggest). Our bodies react warmly and pleasantly, and suddenly we feel compelled to re-create the effect by following the lead.

Again, this is a strong reaffirmation of the fundamentally social nature of our species, and how important it is for as many members of a community as possible to work together and treat each other kindly.

So what does this all mean according to the researchers themselves?

It appears that moral elevation inspires altruism because of a mixture of arousal and the desire to protect others. Saturn believes that the hormone oxytocin—the “tend and befriend” hormone—is probably responsible for that, and that it may explain the strong, visceral responses people feel when morally elevated. In her next experiment, she hopes to study oxytocin release during elevation in new mothers—a population where it’s easier (and cheaper) to study it.

Note the pivotal role of hormones in helping to regulate moral behavior and action. Could hormone therapy of some kind be a while to improve altruism and compassion in others? Do at least some, if not most, cases of moral failing have partly something to do with a neurological or hormonal imbalance of some kind? Is morality something that be treated and tweaked with medicine? What are your thoughts?

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