In the past, experts have looked at goodness, or altruism, as a type of well-developed moral faculty. National Institutes of Health neuroscientists, Moll and Jordan Grafman, were surprised to discover during research experiments, that the same primitive region of the brain that responds to the pleasure of food or sex (often called the reward center) also lights up in response to altruism and generosity. This seems to indicate that being “good” is one of our most primitive, instinctual desires.
Their brain imaging research revealed that when the volunteers decided to treat others better than themselves, the altruistic choice activated the same primitive part of the brain where a reaction would normally occur in response to the pleasure of food or sex. These scientists believe the only reasonable explanation is that altruism must be a basic, integral part of our brain’s programming.
Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, says that multiple experiments are revealing that morality arises from very basic brain activities. He says that morality is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. It is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," as an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.
Scientists are now using brain imaging and psychological experiments to dissect the brain’s built-in moral compass. The results have been unexpected, and show that many aspects of what we call “morality” appear to be concepts hard-wired in the brain.
It is believed that our sense of morality is an evolutionary process that began in other species. It is known that even relatively primitive animals can sacrifice their own interests for the sake of another. Basically, animals are known to express empathy. One experiment found that if each time a rat receives food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will stop eating.
Research is beginning to show that the foundation of morality is actually empathy. Being able to understand emotionally what another creature is going through appears to be the significant leap in the evolution of social behavior.
Harvard researcher, Marc Hauser, has come to some profound conclusions while studying morality. He says that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way. This suggests that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, and not just a product of culture. He explains that morality is much like language, in that its basic features are hard-wired. Different moral beliefs are built on the same framework, in a similar fashion as children in different cultures learning different languages while all using the same neural mechanisms.
This would explain why virtually all major religions and cultures believe in the same law of repricity, or "treat others as you would like to be treated." Regardless of culture, race or religion, all of the world’s greatest philosophers and religious figures have taught the same “golden rule”, though stated in slightly different ways such as:
"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." — Torah Leviticus 19:33-34
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." — Jesus (c. 5 BC - AD 32 ) in the Gospels, Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Luke 10:27
"This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you." — Mahabharata (5:15:17) (c. 500 BC)
"What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." — Confucius (ca. 551 - 479 BC)
"None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself." — Muhammad (c. AD 571 - 632) in a Hadith.
In this case at least, religion and neuroscience agree. Obeying the “golden rule” is likely to make one happy.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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