Under the Sun
Good deeds a melding of the brain and soul
TWO women who looked to be mother and daughter tag-team wrestled the train of shopping carts that by bad design and composition intractably stick together like senior senators from Hawaii and Alaska.
Unable to loosen one from the first string, the older woman sidestepped to the next, unknowingly cutting off a young man just as he reached for it. He hissed an obscenity, rounded to the front and yanked a cart from that end, rattling the rest forward and causing the woman to lose her balance.
She didn't fall, but bounced her chest hard off the handle bar. The younger woman gave the man a deserved stink eye. He sent back a look that suggested he couldn't care less.
I caught up with him at the cold cases where he pitched four big cases of beer into the cart before bulldozing down the aisle in blatant disregard of the courtesy still prevalent in one of the last places civilized behavior is expected in this rude, rude world.
My last glimpse of him was when he dodged a couple of other shoppers to dock at the checkout counter before they could. What a guy.
I thought of this fellow as I read about research by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health showing that the part of the brain that usually responds to pleasurable activity, such as sex or eating flavorful food, also reacted when the brain's owner did something good or generous.
The research indicates that altruism is biologically hard-wired in humans and that empathy developed as a tool for survival among species. Other studies have found that people with brain deficiencies or damage can lack the ability to discern right from wrong. Scientists think some end up committing terrible crimes because of that.
The discoveries seem to make sense. There's always a certain amount of pleasure in helping another or extending a favor. There are also incidences where a larger, for-the-good-of-all societal reward comes into play, small as they may be; for example, when a driver waves another through an intersection despite traffic rules because gridlock would ensue otherwise.
While such decisions could be attributed to reason or logic, they do speak to beneficence, especially when a person is directly involved.
Researchers explain that familiarity influences moral responses, which is why people more readily donate money to local needs or needy than to causes outside of their experiences. It's why people whose family members or friends were stricken by a disease, like cancer, or were killed by a drunken driver, enlist in related campaigns.
But if that's so, why wouldn't that strapping young man -- seeing right in front of him someone who needed a hand -- ignore an opportunity for gratification? Brain deficiency? I think not.
As deeply and thoroughly as science can penetrate the workings of the human brain, I'm not so sure that morality can be assigned simply and solely to physical connections of synapses, neurons, and electrical and chemical pulses.
Not to deny the science, nor the need for knowledge, nor the exciting exploration of the organ that governs our being. But I'd like to think that generosity and kindness honors a spirituality that beats in cadence with a soul.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org