Hard-Wired for Giving

The Wall Street Journal:

The Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest” echoes what many people believe about life: To get ahead, you need to look out for No. 1. A cursory read of evolutionary doctrine suggests that the selfish individuals able to outcompete others for the best mates and the most resources are most likely to pass their genes on to the next generation. Then there is classical economic theory, which holds that given the choice, we will often opt for a personal benefit over a personal loss, even if that loss involves a benefit to someone else.

The philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill championed the self-centered theory in the mid-1800s, describing man as a creature that “does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labor and physical self-denial.”

These days, neuroscientists like Jordan Grafman are investigating specific regions of the human brain that give rise to altruistic behavior. Dr. Grafman, now director of brain injury research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, became interested in how the brain governs generosity in part out of his work with military veterans who suffered brain trauma. Back in the 1980s, when he was working with returned vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he started to notice something unusual about patients who had sustained damage to their frontal lobes. At first glance, they appeared normal: Their cognitive ability seemed unaffected, and many were able to carry out basic motor tasks with ease. But they suffered from other, more subtle deficits, many of which were apparent only in a nonclinical setting. “The wives said, ‘You’re missing something,’ ” Dr. Grafman remembers. In social situations, the men floundered, acting as if they didn’t care what other people had to say.

Read the whole story: The Wall Street Journal

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