The Neuroscience of Goodness
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” – John Wesley
While a discussion on goodness could take many different directions, the primary focus here will be on one: a zeal for the truth. Unless we can confront falsehood and ignorance, we will continue contributing to the brokenness of the world. Living a life of truth starts with confessing our ignorance and acknowledging that each one of us has unconscious bias. Once we accept our limitations, then we can move beyond them. Strength lies in accepting our weakness. This is an active movement. To hide from weakness or put on a front of anger comes from fear.
The Neuroscience of Goodness
If we can actively seek and engage the truth, then our neural circuitry will better mesh with the world. When we live in ignorance, we might be consciously or unconsciously drawn to ignore or dispute truth. If in our ignorance we feel cozy, then we will live in a cocoon. Neurologically we will have to make ever-larger distortions or delusions to separate us from the truth or our fantasy world will get cracked by reality. The hippocampus plays a major role in memory, but it is also essential in contextualization. People who often lie, will have to keep track of whom they have lied to, about what their lies were, and the actual truth. This will put added stress on the hippocampus and our neural circuitry just trying to keep track of the lies. A life lived in and by the truth will establish deeper connectivity with the prefrontal cortex and will give our brains deeper contextualization. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which is involved in moral and ethical decision making, will play a strong role in this. To engage and actively seek the truth will strengthen the VMPFC. A life grounded in truth will give greater flexibility and ease in making connections with our prefrontal cortex and our hippocampus’s role in making memory because our memories will be true rather than a falsehood to deceive others. If we do not have to constantly think about our deceptions or the deceptions of others then we can live in peace. We can live with less fear, anxiety or suspicion of others.
Living life with less fear, anxiety, and suspicion is in part what makes a life of truth also a life of goodness and generosity. The word generous come from the same root as to give birth or be generative. Truth is the wellspring of goodness. It propels us towards trust and allows cooperation and collaboration. Without truth, suspicion and fear will rule our lives. Our conception of heaven is generally a place where truth reigns supreme. We can also work toward truth reigning supreme on earth as it is in heaven.
Seeing the world as it is can be overwhelming, but it can also fill us with gratitude. To know and be known is one of the most fundamental desires of all people. When we can see each other, “warts and all”, rather than by deception, then there is much room for grace. In fact, gratitude and generosity work together. Gratitude propels us to give back and be generous. Gratitude and a generous spirit give us the ability to bring goodness into the world. Gratitude activates parts of the brain that produce feelings of reward, fairness, and morality. The areas of the brain include the ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. The anterior cingulate is also involved. Seeing the world as it really is can be devastating. But if we live in ignorance and prejudice, our brains become convoluted by conflicting signals. Living in the truth helps us produce a cleaner conscious that is healthier and more capable of bringing about healing in the world.
Goodness also draws us to be creative and to work toward making the world a better place. When we are willing and able to see the world for what it is, then our prefrontal cortex can really get to work. The executive function of problem-solving can determine the challenges in front of us and we can make plans and take action to overcome them. Continually looking to see the reality of the world will give us a clear conscious and help us continually plan for the best. The prefrontal cortex helps us understand long term consequences rather than settle for short term gratification. The orbitofrontal cortex, in particular, helps us regulate pleasure-driven feelings. Dan Siegel in his book, The Mindful Brain details nine specific functions of the prefrontal cortex: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, insight, fear modulation, intuition, and morality. The complexity and function of the prefrontal cortex are what sets us apart from all of God’s other creatures. Through the executive function of our brains, we can actively make plans to bring goodness into the world.