I have been the recipient of much kindness and goodwill thus far in my life. In times of great developmental disruptions, friends and family have stepped forward and offered me food, money and a clean, dry place to sleep. Almost all of my significant relationship breakups have unfolded with a minimum of acrimony and resentment and allowed for steady movement in the direction of the next great healing/learning adventure. As I find myself immersed in what used to be considered old age (I’ll be 70 this July – how terribly strange), I feel blessed, many times over.
Social neuroscience and psychology research would posit that I have reached Erik Erikson’s developmental stage called Generativity. In some ways it seems like I’ve been immersed in that stage since I was a kid. Generativity derives great joy from giving to others. University of Dayton psychologist Jack Bauer proposes that my generativity joy involves a “quiet ego,” one that doesn’t need to clamor for attention, fame or recognition. With generativity comes a preference for taking a back seat to the needs of others that allows me to bask in their accomplishments. That pretty much feels right.
I’ve been a mentor of one sort or another for 40+ years now. Some of the housebuilders I’ve mentored have gone on to far surpass me in the field. And a number of the psychology doctoral students I’ve guided have gone on to win professional prizes and peer acclaim for their research (one for research on … altruism!). That all feels bask-worthy. Currently, I’m deriving great joy from building and giving away Prayer Pods for the homeless.
Some neuroscience researchers argue that our brains are hardwired for altruism. I’m not so sure. In one example, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of mirror neuron fame, asserts that our brains come equipped with something he calls “prosocial resonance” circuitry. All he has to do is knock out the neurons and their connections that interfere with those prosocial circuits and voila, I’m ready to not only give you the shirt off my back, but my pants and shoes as well (I’ll probably keep my underwear, similar to how experimental subjects in this study only gave away 75%! of their money).
The overriding, real-world reality seems to be that if such hardwiring exists in most of us, it’s powerfully neutralized by the overriding circuitry that impedes altruistic behavior. Why else would 1502 of the world’s 1645 billionaires refuse to sign the Buffet-Gates Giving Pledge? (To increase that number, Gates and Buffet might want to send their next invitation letter written on … sandpaper. As this study suggests, it might actually work!). Interestingly, this neurological conflict also seems to be mirrored in the frequent clashes between science and religion. If I look into my own experience, I find myself most unempathetic when my brain has “jumped the hump” in its expression of stress hormones, for example, when I’m in physical pain or experiencing excessive fear.
Stress Makes Me Stupid and Stingy
We know from research like this and hundreds of other studies that not only can’t we think straight under stress, but most of us don’t even realize we’re not thinking straight. When I volunteered as a grief counselor, one of bit of guidance we gave every client as a matter of course was, “Don’t make any important decisions for at least a year.”
One of the ways I frequently end up not thinking straight under stress is that I begin thinking 24/7 about me, me, me. You would think I’d be able to step outside that self-obsession and realize how tiring it is to spend time around other people lost in self-obsession, including myself. But no! Those interference circuits in my brain seem to have a life of their own. And until the stressor is removed or resolved, those brain cells will keep firing their interference patterns.
A Reliable Way Out
One way for me to eventually get that circuitry to calm down, I attribute to The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. There’s little better than a smart, trustworthy, reliable more organized brain living in an adult body who can listen clearly and reflect back my own self-absorption to me. More often than not such altruistic, compassionate action works to answer The Big Brain Question and simultaneously bring me home to the present moment where, more often than not, “everything is just perfect.” And because I know just how complex and unpredictable the world actually is, I can override my brain’s penchant for “time traveling” and let go and begin to relax with an open curiosity, avidly interested in what might actually be trying to show up in the next moment.