February 2014: From TBS President Bryan H. Pines
Many of you are aware that we have started a campaign to raise the funds to replace the roof on our Temple. The goal is clear, and the appeal to contribute has been established. In and of itself, that may be enough of a reason for your participation in this construction project. I would like to discuss another motivational reason to join the expanding list of contributors. The act of giving is inherently rewarding. Many studies have examined the act of charitable giving with a focus on the individual’s benefit. As a group, we can determine if our positive results to altruistic behavior are similar to the research that I would like to present in this column.
The Wall Street Journal published an article on September 1, 2013, written by Elizabeth Svoboda titled Hard Wired for GIVING. This was a synopsis of her new book: What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness. Researchers have been studying why individuals exhibit this behavior, and through modern scientific tools such as fMRI, where these neural brain circuits are located.
Recently, Grafman, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, investigated charitable giving utilizing the fMRI scanner. This device precisely highlights the blood flow throughout the brains of the subjects in the study while they performed various tasks. For example, these recruits were asked to make decisions regarding a list of charities while under observation. The choices were to donate, refuse to donate, or add the funds to a reward account that they could take home after the study. Some of these decisions ultimately depleted their personal reward account. Scans revealed that when individuals donated to a charity they deemed worthy, areas in the midbrain illuminated; a response similar to satiating a craving. The subjects were making decisions that had an intrinsic reward. The study also revealed increased activity in a small area of the brain containing receptors for oxytocin, a hormone promoting social bonding. Clearly these two behaviors are intertwined.
Harbaugh, at the University of Oregon had similar results in his study. He stated that “giving to charity is, surprisingly, neurologically similar to ingesting an addictive drug or learning you’ve received a winning lottery ticket. It seems clear, then, that people give to charity not only because they think it’s a good thing to do but also because giving makes them feel good, in addition to the particular benefit they’re bestowing on the recipient.”Harbaugh reported that some of his subjects exhibited various levels of midbrain activity. It could be indicative of the subjects experiencing substantially different levels of satisfaction. He also reported some subjects who donated at extremely high rates which exceeded any level predicted by their scans. These individuals appear to be giving to others with no measurable personal reward.
Altruistic behavior may be intrinsic to our neural connections but we have the capacity to override these instincts. We must encourage and nurture these actions to create a personal balance that is acceptable to our complex lives. I hope that in finding that balance, your valuable bond with Temple Beth Sholom will strengthen your heart as well as your brain.
Bryan H. Pines