The Human Brain: Wired for Values

History shows that human beings have the potential to hold lofty values and act upon them, even at the cost of dire consequences to themselves.

An ordinary seaman in the U.S. Navy during World War II ran barefoot across the red-hot deck of a burning ship to save a comrade’s life.

In the Netherlands during the same war, Betsy Ten Boom mustered the spiritual strength to forgive the Nazi camp guards who tortured and eventually killed her. Our potential for loving sacrifice exists at one end of a spectrum of values, the other pole of which is occupied by the doomed attempt of disturbed teenagers to resolve their personal issues by opening fire on their classmates.

If both potentials exist in human nature–the loving and expansive as well as the murderous and contractive–would we be justified in assuming that values are somehow encoded in our brains?

In fact, science has begun to deliver tantalizing hints that life-affirming values may be a fixed feature of the brain’s design, awaiting stimulation by appropriate teaching methods.

Recent research from the growing field of neuropsychology, for example, suggests that most of our higher abilities — our capacity to empathize with others, to “multitask,” to solve complex problems, to be upbeat and positive, and to concentrate and persevere — are localized in the prefrontal lobes of the brain — the “new” part of the brain which is more highly developed in humans than in other primates.

If we could help children energize this part of their brains, perhaps we might help them lead happier, more meaningful lives.

The February 2, 2001 issue of Science Daily reported the results of a study by Donald Stuss, one of the world’s foremost experts on the brain’s prefrontal lobes. Dr. Stuss’s research, originally published in the February 2001 issue of the international journal BRAIN, provides the strongest evidence so far that our ability to empathize is localized in the prefrontal lobes — the part of the brain that also controls personality, mood, memory, a sense of humor, and consciousness awareness.

The Science Daily article observed: “It has long been known that some patients with frontal lobe damage have significantly changed personalities…. For example, patients with damage in the specific frontal area are often less empathetic and sympathetic.”

Further evidence that empathy is localized in the prefrontal lobes comes from an emerging body of evidence which shows that, in some people, damage to the frontal lobes is responsible for the development of a sociopathic personality. “Sociopathy” is a term used to describe people who can commit violent crimes, including murder and rape, without experiencing feelings of remorse. In less severe forms of the syndrome, “sociopathy” is used to describe people who are simply unable to empathize with others.

Children with well-developed empathy would naturally tend to value their classmates’ welfare. They would be less likely to commit acts of mass murder, and on a more mundane scale, they would enjoy improved socialization, along with the inner rewards that accompany a healthy ability to bond.

Current brain research suggests that there may be ways to stimulate children’s frontal lobes directly, aside from long-term developmental methods such as those practiced at Living Wisdom School. (See accompanying article, Mothering Magazine Praises Living Wisdom School.)

A study, &lrdquo;Reversing the Neurophysiology of Violence,” conducted by Alarik Arenander, Ph.D. at the Brain Research Institute at the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy in Fairfield, Iowa, concluded:

“Modern physiological research on the causes of violent and aggressive behavior have [sic] identified two strong neurophysiological correlates: abnormal neuroendocrine patterns and abnormal metabolic patterns. Specifically, serotonin and cortisol are known to affect mood and emotional impulsivity. Normal neuroendocrine patterns are restored by the [Transcendental Meditation] meditation technique.”

Nothing could be more certain than that any suggestion that meditation be introduced into public schools would be violently opposed by a broad spectrum of special interest groups, with mainline religious groups in the lead. Nonetheless, powerful scientific support exists for the notion that meditation works at least as well as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, by stimulating the brain’s prefrontal lobes, even as a growing body of evidence shows that these powerful drugs do. Moreover, meditation lacks the unfortunate side-effects of Prozac, et al., which include a return of depression once patients stop taking the drug.

In fact, meditation is increasingly being prescribed by the medical community as a purely sectarian remedy for stress and depression. In a July 5, 2000 article on, “Mindfulness Medication — Modern Medicine Turns to An Ancient Practice,” Jeff Brantley, Ph.D., Director of the Mindfulness‑based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. reported that meditation helps his patients discover “an increased awareness and appreciation of their lives.”

Dr. Brantley remarked: “We get everyone from born-again Christians to avowed atheists. We tell people we are not trying to make anyone into anything.” The article further noted: “Doctors refer patients to mindfulness programs for any number of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, anxiety and panic, job or family stress, chronic pain, cancer, HIV infection, AIDS, headaches, sleep disturbances, type A behavior, high blood pressure, fatigue and skin disorders.”

Further evidence that our ability to empathize may be hardwired in our brains appeared in the January 27, 2001 issue of New Scientist. Brain scientists have discovered that when we watch someone prick their finger, neurons in the same finger of our hand fire in sympathy. Neuroscientists V. S. Ramachandran, Vittorio Gallese, Alvin Goldman, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Michael Arbib are fascinated by these “mirror neurons,” which they believe may provide a physiological basis for our ability to anticipate other people’s behavior and empathize with their feelings, as well as our capacity to communicate, exercise ingenuity, and develop tightly interwoven societies.

These results are the first hints of a connection between values and the brain. But if science tells us anything clearly, it is that kids can change, because the brain continually adapts in response to lessons from the surrounding environment.

In plain terms, children can be taught the skills they need to become happier, more fulfilled and caring individuals.

Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s leading researchers on emotions and the prefrontal lobes of the brain, said in a Washington Post “Health Talk” radio interview on November 2, 2000:

“One thing that is so important is for people not to assume that since we find biological differences among people it necessarily means that those differences have arisen from heritable causes. Modern neuroscience research teaches us that the brain is an organ built to change in response to experience, probably more than any other organ in the body. The brain is literally shaped, both structurally and functionally, by experience. So while early differences in these patterns of brain function have been detected, we and others have also found remarkable plasticity or change that can occur, particularly in the early years of life, before puberty. It is also likely that change can occur in adulthood though we do not know what the limits of such change might be.”

In his book, Moral Development and Behavior, the late Lawrence Kohlberg, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at Harvard, described a major cross-cultural study in which the researchers were able to map the precise stages that children of all cultures pass through as they develop moral awareness. Kohlberg concluded that children everywhere, regardless of religious affiliation, nationality, or racial background, pass through the same six phases of development, ranging from unabashed self-interest, through mercenary “you pat my back, I’ll pat yours” attitudes, to selfless concern for the welfare of others.

Professor Kohlberg, whose work became a cornerstone for subsequent research on children’s moral development, discovered that children are attracted to achieve these progressively refined levels of moral awareness as they increasingly discover the internal rewards of behaving selflessly. At the highest level, which Kohlberg dubs &lrdquo;Principled Conscience,” children behave unselfishly simply because it feels inwardly joyful and liberating to do so. Kohlberg’s stages:

  1. Pre-conventional (Obedience and Punishment: “Do it or else!”)
  2. Individualism, Instrumentalism, and Exchange (Conventional: “Do it for a reward.”)
  3. “Good boy/girl” (Conformity: “Do it to please others.”)
  4. Law and Order (Post-conventional: “Do it because it’s proper.”)
  5. Social Contract (“Do it because it makes everyone happy.”)
  6. Principled Conscience (“Do it because it’s right and because it feels joyous and liberating.”)

Dr. Kohlberg’s discovery of a sameness in children’s moral growth around the world would seem to provide the strongest evidence so far that values are a built-in feature of human nature, one that can be encouraged by consistent, compassionate teaching methods.

In the last analysis, we don’t have to wait for science to catch up with what common sense already tells us: that children who are loved and inspired will respond and grow as human beings, while those who are force-fed an unrelenting stream of dead facts will wither inwardly, even as their brains, computer-like, develop the mechanistic capacity to “solve the system” by spitting forth what they are fed.