Chocolate and Acts of Kindness: No Difference to Your Brain

What gives you that feel-good feeling?
By Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness

Are we hard-wired to be good people? Is helping our fellow man a
natural instinct of our kind?

It's inviting to believe we share species-wide morality when we see U.N.
rations drop into a destitute village or watch a rescue worker pull a
toddler from a well. Altruism needn't come on such a grandiose scale,
either; we feel the same swell of pride and humility from everyday
overtures like shoveling the neighbor's walk or offering directions to a
lost stranger.

Granted, we don't live it 24/7. Anyone who's spent more than five
minutes on the phone with the cable company's customer service line
has danced with his darker demons. But we know when we're morally
and ethically on track.

Ethical behavior's effect on the brain

We know because the brain tells us so in its strange chemical
language. Research in the young field of social neuroscience has
revealed that the brain is activated in response to compassion and
ethical behavior.

Several studies have focused on the brain's reward circuit to try to
connect the dots between neurological function, emotion and ethics.
The reward circuit is an interacting group of brain areas including the
ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a small region
behind the forehead), and it's understood to be a hub of the brain's
emotional network.

It's here that we manage reason and emotions like compassion and
shame, and where we process pleasure in response to stimuli like an
attractive face or a big bite of chocolate. Over the past two years,
studies have linked the reward circuit to altruism, the perception of
justice, and a sense of fairness.

Another study by world-class neuroscientists suggests the same area
of the brain is engaged in deeper moral judgments. Working with 30
subjects, researchers posed classic morality scenarios such as: If one
person in a life raft had to be thrown over so that several others could
live, could you toss her over?

Each of the six subjects who had suffered injuries to the prefrontal
cortex—and only those six—responded without reservation that they
were willing to harm one individual to save themselves and the others.

"In those circumstances most people without this specific brain damage
will be torn," said one author of the study. "But these particular
subjects seem to lack that conflict." The research has been noted for
linking the block of emotions with a failure of moral judgment.

Studies on oxytocin (more widely recognized for its role in childbirth
and parent/child bonding) also have linked brain activity with higher
moral functions. Acts of selflessness, the touch of another's hand, the
glance of a mother into her newborn baby's eyes—all are known to
trigger release of the hormone, which in turn promotes the release of
dopamine. The flooding of dopamine into the brain's reward center
elicits that warm surge of satisfaction we get from doing good things or
being in the company of people we love and trust. It's the pleasure
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