A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says something just shocking because it can’t help but be seen as “proving” a Biblical principle to be physically true. That just makes me smile; not in any gloating way but in a “hey, Lord, thanks!” way.
“Is it really more rewarding to give than to receive? As this ScienCentral News video reports, brain imaging research is unwrapping what’s behind the joy of giving.
“‘Tis Better to Give Than Receive”
The phrase typically attributed to a verse in the Christian New Testament is now proving to be hard-wired into our brains. Brain scanning research is revealing that generosity seems to be a built in human trait.
“You give from the heart and… it satisfies your brain,” says Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Grafman and his team study aspects of the human brain that set us apart from other species, with the aim of using that knowledge to better test when things go wrong in our brains, and whether new treatments are effective. They decided to study which areas of the human brain are involved in donating to organizations “because we know that that’s something that other species just don’t do,” he says.
They used a technique called functional MRI. It reveals which brain structures are most active relative to the rest of the brain when people perform certain mental tasks. They asked 19 healthy volunteers to play a computer game while having their brains scanned. In addition to dispensing cash rewards, the game also asked for donations to charities. “When they donated, either they could donate and it wouldn’t cost them personally or they could donate and it might cost them some money,” explains Grafman.
The researchers weren’t surprised that when people received money in the game, it lit up structures deep in the brain associated with the release of the chemical dopamine, which is known to trigger feelings of pleasure and reward. (This chemical is also associated with our motivation to seek (or crave) food, drugs or love.)
But as they reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences donating to charities lit up the brain’s reward circuits even more than receiving cash.
“The same regions of the brain that are associated with the reward and the good feeling you have when you get something yourself, like money, were the same areas that were activated when you give. That surprised us,” says Grafman. “And not only were the same areas involved, but in fact they were more activated when you give than when you receive.”
And giving also excited areas of the brain that are not activated by receiving. One produces the so-called “cuddle hormone” oxytocin. “It’s very well known that oxytocin is released when people feel an attachment,” Grafman says.
“It definitely seems like you’re going to get more pleasure, if these brain activations can be any guide, when you’re giving than when you’re simply receiving.“ whole article, with video, here
Here in the Christmas season, which we’ve been thinking about in terms of the commercial and material emphases in our culture, it’s a heart-warming thought to know that we’re really “wired” for generosity. How counter cultural is that?! Maybe that also means we can appreciate the generosity of others in terms of the joy it gives them, our neighbors or community, rather than in terms of personal gain? Maybe that means we can apprehend, just a bit more, the radical gift of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of whom it is written “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
I know there are a lot of places where faith and science collide that it just isn’t pretty, but this is one intersection with a view.