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See Inside September / October 2009

Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts

A psychologist probes how altruism, evolution and neurobiology mean that we can succeed by not being cutthroat

Why do people do good things? Is kindness hardwired into the brain, or does this tendency arise via experience? Dacher Keltner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, investigates these questions from multiple angles and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his recent book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (W. W. Norton, 2009), Keltner weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover human emotion’s innate power to connect people with one another, which he argues is the path to living the good life. Here Keltner discusses altruism, neurobiology and the practical applications of his findings with David DiSalvo.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND: What, in a nutshell, does the term “born to be good” mean to you?

DACHER KELTNER: “Born to be good” means that our mammalian and hominid evolution has crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion—feelings such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth. Recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, play, reverence and modesty is built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices.

MIND: One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism is the vagus nerve, as your team at U.C. Berkeley has found. Tell us a bit about this research and its implications.

KELTNER: The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.

Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.

MIND: Often when we learn about this type of intriguing academic work being done on emotions, morality and related areas, we are left asking, “Is there anything we can make actual use of here?” As you look down the road, what do you want the impact of your work to be out in the world?

KELTNER: In summarizing the new science of emotion in Born to Be Good, I was struck by how useful it is. Recent research is suggesting that our capacities for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms, and these capacities are found in the emotions I write about.

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