100_0060Does identifying areas of the brain that are activated by certain feelings or actions give us more insight into human behavior? And if a behavior seems to reside in an area of the brain does this mean the brain is hard-wired for that behavior and we humans are not exercising free will when we make choices?

I don’t think so, but the media keeps churning out articles implying that a person’s choice to behave in a certain way is really no choice at all, but rather is the result of brain hard-wiring. This presents us with a cause-and-effect dilemma: Does a hard-wired brain cause us to behave in a certain fashion or is our behavior independent of brain localization?

One good example of this cause-and-effect dilemma is found in an article by Elizabeth Svoboda in The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday August 31 – September 1, 2013 titled Hard-Wired for Giving. The headline states that scientists have identified the precise brain circuits behind our urge to give, and this helps us to understand the motivation for Giving behavior. There is a clear implication here that the brain is in control and humans are willy-nilly following directions from the brain, which is calling the shots, so to speak

So if we are hardwired for generosity does this mean our individual choices to give money to charities or do volunteer work are not choices at all? Are we merely responding to brain hard-wiring, even if this charitable urge contradicts the Darwinian theory of survival of fittest?

While this research is interesting, and the ability to localize and pinpoint areas of the brain that are activated by certain behaviors may be helpful in medicine and rehabilitation, I don’t think this gives evidence that free will does not exist and that man is bound by brain hard-wiring. In the first place, we have discovered over the past 30 years that the brain is, in fact, soft-wired. It is plastic and changes in response to repetitious behaviors. Our choices and behaviors can cause areas of the brain to expand or become more robust.

This is why I have concern about the overexposure of young children to various electronic games. Repeated exposure and resulting behavior can influence brain function so that children playing aggressive games exhibit more aggressiveness, at least in research studies. But it also means that children who are taught to “Do onto others as others as you would have them do onto you” by volunteering and giving to charities, will increase brain capacity for giving and helping others.

Yes, Giving behavior makes people feel good. And why shouldn’t it? People are complex organisms. There are many reasons and motivations for giving. Some people give because they believe it is an important value, while others may give because of peer pressure, prestige ––  or because they need a tax deduction!