On Making The Brain Nice

brainSome of my best friends are brain scientists. Well, actually, there is only one, my dear friend John Medina, among the brightest, most affable, generous people I know. I have learned more about the brain from John than I deserve to know, given my bent of curiosity toward culture, text, literature, theology, the biblical imagination, and such.

But I’ve grown impatient with some brain scientists, or at least the popularizing of brain science, perhaps the popularizing of any science. My impatience is with those who feel the need to verify through science what theologians have grappled with for centuries. My problem is that science almost never consults theology.

The irritating part is that nothing these days is presumed true until we can trot out some kind of “empirical research.” Stick the brain under the fMRI, and voila, we now have the truth. Everything else is tossed into the wastebin of speculation, conjecture, imagination, even magic. Science always trumps, or dismisses, good theology.

There is a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal’s Review section last Saturday morning called “Hard-Wired For Giving.” The article is written by Elizabeth Svoboda, apparently one of our interpreters of what she calls the “science of selflessness.”

This article represents what I have been chaffing at for years.

“A cursory read of evolutionary doctrine,” Ms. Svoboda begins, “suggests that the selfish individuals able to outcompete others for the best mates and the most resources are most likely to pass their genes on to the next generation.” This orthodoxy is, of course, buried deep into our social consciousness. We are all out for ourselves, engaged in a battle to get on top, making choices that are primarily self-focused. We rarely do anything genuinely generous. That’s the survival game Darwin revealed to the world a century and a half ago.

Well, “the latest science,” Svoboda goes on to say, “shows that, in fact, we are also hard-wired to be generous.” “Using tools like fMRI,” she says, “scientists are identifying the precise circuits within the brain that control these nurturing social impulses. Where once there was only speculation about the origins of the human desire to help others, a body of data is starting to fill the gap, revealing key workings of the biological hardware that makes altruism possible.”

I find this breathtakingly arrogant, to assume that only now we have found the real “origins of human desire to help others,” or that we only now know what “makes altruism possible.” Our only source for such knowledge?–“key workings of the biological hardware.” I bring a heavy dose of skepticism to this kind of speculation.

But wait. Let’s not get too optimistic about human nature. Apparently, from this research, generosity is still self-focused: “While we often tend to think of altruism as a kind of sophisticated moral capacity we use to squelch our urges to dominate others, this new evidence suggests that giving is actually inherently rewarding: The brain churns out a pleasurable response when we engage in it.” Even generosity is designed to provide our own pleasure. We are still out for ourselves.

All of this “represents a new scientific frontier, one that could eventually enable the development of therapies tailored for people who have particular problems generating empathy or who want to improve their existing capacity for generosity.” Oh my, this now gets a little scary. Using light, for example, for neurological manipulation, we can make mice nice: “Once the light in the mouse’s brain begins to glow, the mouse all but smothers his cagemate, practically jumping on top of him in an attempt to connect.”

This “might sound vaguely Orwellian,” Svoboda  suggests, but the scientists plan to use the “light-activation system for benevolent ends.” Yes, of course.

What interests me here is that there is not one hint in this article recognizing the ancient Christian teaching on this enormously important topic. Right at the heart of the gospel sits the remarkable notion that we are naturally selfish but mysteriously transformed by God’s love to become generous. To become self-giving, self-sacrificing is exactly what Jesus models for us on the cross. We are reminded every time we see the cross to give ourselves away.

And then, once we are invaded by God’s gracious love, we set out to become better people. This is the discipline of character formation that is always part of Christian teaching. All of this is the paradoxical way of human flourishing. This is the Christian view of what it means to flourish.

My point is not to rag on science. That would be foolish. My point comes from my utter astonishment to read an article like this that has not a clue how to tap into the centuries-long biblical and theological teaching.

When it comes to wisdom on how to live well, our culture has become a little thin, frankly a little silly. What if, like my friend John Medina, our scientists joined our theologians instead of dismissing them. Something richer, more nuanced, more true might come from just this kind of collaboration.