By Sindya Bhanoo
Originally published June 15, 2007
A controversial Jesuit priest named Anthony de Mello questioned our underlying motives in doing good deeds. "Charity," he said, "is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism."
Nearly a quarter of a century later, a brain-imaging study might back up his assertions on the urge to please yourself by pleasing others. University of Oregon researchers published a study yesterday in Science magazine that finds a biological basis for altruistic behavior.
Dr. William Harbaugh and Dr. Ulrich Mayr used brain imaging to monitor subjects as they donated money to an Oregon food bank. When a person chose to donate money, neurons in the nucleus accumbens, a portion of the brain that has long been associated with a sense of reward and satisfaction, started firing.
"What is interesting is that our ability to make moral decisions is not lofty. It ultimately comes from the same place where desire for food, shelter and sex come from," Mayr said.
These are needs, and a brain part, Harbaugh said, that we share with all our animal friends - even lizards.
The research has implications for everyone from theologians to tax collectors, whose endeavors hinge on human motivations.
"This research comes as no surprise to me," said the Rev. Jason Poling of the New Hope Community Church in Pikesville. "It makes perfect sense that people would be happy if they are living a life of generosity."
In the economic realm, psychologists have sought to understand decision-making since the 1970s, said Dr. Marc Raichle, a University of Pennsylvania neurobiology professor. But using brain imaging to study altruism is revolutionary, he said, as it marks the blending of medicine, psychology and economics in a way that could help us understand more about the emotional aspects.
The Oregon study follows a similar one by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. Moll and Grafman asked subjects to consider donating money to charity while their brains were monitored under an MRI.
Some people enjoyed donating money more than keeping it to themselves. The finding, by both sets of researchers, might surprise economists.
"Economists, for a very long time, were driven by mathematical models. They have all sorts of equations to predict individual and group behavior," Grafman said. Now, with psychologists and neuroscientists studying brain responses through imaging, more information is emerging about human decision-making. For instance, Harbaugh and Mayr found that pleasure neurons fired even when subjects donated money as a "tax."
"I've heard people claim that they don't mind paying taxes, if it's for a good cause," Mayr said, "and here we showed that you can actually see this going on."
In Maryland, taxpayers can choose to donate to various charities, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland cancer funds, when filing returns, said Christine Duray, deputy director in the Office of Communications at Maryland's comptroller's office. The percentage who donate, however, has consistently been less than 3 percent of filers.
Further research on altruism, Mayr believes, might allow policymakers or charitable fundraisers to discern formats that are more or less satisfying to people. However, he cautioned, "what you cannot easily do is get information about specific, potential donors unless they are willing to be can strapped into the magnet."
Mayr and Harbaugh studied 19 subjects who were lying on their backs in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner for an hourlong session as they simultaneously made financial decisions about donating on a computer screen. The scanner used a super-cooled magnet and reflections of radio waves to determine how much oxygenated blood was in a given part of the subject's brain. The levels indicated where neurons were firing.
Analyzing how we think about charity also gives us a glimpse into morals and ethics. While several area religious leaders agreed that acts of charity might make one feel "good," the consensus was that it is not the reason to do charity.
"All religions - Islam, Christianity, Buddhism - have components of charity," said the Rev. Phyllis L. Hubbell of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. "The act of charity is something we do because we are all one, but not because it makes us feel good. It might make you feel good, but that's not why you give."
Similarly, Rabbi Ronald Shulman, of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, said that in Judaism charity is a tzedakah, or a righteous deed that is obligatory.
"Voluntary giving is great and may feel good, but it is my duty ... to give," Schulman said, "not my choice."
Whatever the realm, one expert cautioned against "overinterpretation." Dr. Judy Illes, director of Stanford University's program in neuroethics, said, "These are tests done in a laboratory setting, and the correlation to other issues must be done carefully.
"With a movement toward brain-imaging technology, are we going to run tests on executives of foundations?" Illes asked. "The question is, 'What do we do with this beyond gaining an understanding of neurobiology?'"