Suzana Herculano-Houzel


Last week my daughter had her birthday and, as usual for a few years now, I was looking for ways to make her especially happy to celebrate the date. We decided to go out shopping for her and then take two of her friends from school to a pyjama party at the house. Wearing new clothes and beaming with mischief, she came to tell us, escorted by her friends, that “they weren’t going to bed until midnight” – a daring time for someone who has just turned seven – and off they went to the camp set up in the living room. That’s fine with me: if she’s happy, I’m happy.

My neuroscientist-on-call side doesn’t let the event go unnoticed, of course. Why is giving presents so good? My daughter’s happiness when she receives them has touched me since she was a little girl: her “Fo me? Aaah… maaaaaaany thanks, mama!” made my brain jump and go all mushy inside. Or, in more scientific terms, her smile made my brain, by pure imitation, smile too, and be happy out of empathy. The good we do for others returns to our brain when we see the result on other people’s faces: doing good for others ends up doing us good too, even if it costs us money. 

But that’s not all. Jorge Moll, a Brazilian neuroscientist doing post-doctoral work in the USA, has just published a study showing that the simple decision to do good, long before it causes anyone to smile, already involves activating the brain’s reward system. Deciding to do good gives pleasure. What’s more, the subgenual cortex, an area involved in forming emotional bonds, also participates in altruistic decisions, and should make us create bonds with the object of our good deeds. My brain certainly creates huge bonds with my daughter when it thinks about her happiness.

Of course, it’s possible to look at the data with a different logic. Perhaps we only decide to do good, even to our children, because it gives us pleasure. This is the cynical, or at least skeptical, view of altruism: every altruistic act has a background of self-interest.

I prefer to think that it could be different. I’d rather think that my brain could not give a damn about my daughter’s happiness and could not have the reward system activated either before or after I decided to make her happy. But that’s not the case. My brain has the sensational ability to make my daughter happy and, what’s more, to be happy about it. That’s fine with me.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on November, 2006.

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