I was contacted by a magazine editor to offer thoughts on an article from the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago. I ended up writing a treatise.
I will try to offer several thoughts, that I hope will be cogent. The PNAS study is an interesting one. Neuroscience, as you no doubt know, has advanced considerably over the last several years. This seems especially true following the advent of functional neuroimaging, such as fMRI, which allows researchers to get a glimpse of what is happening in a functioning brain. This fMRI research has progressed from understanding motor functioning (e.g., finger tapping) to cognitive tasks (e.g., memory) and now to issues of relationship and morality. Researchers continually push the edge in terms of figuring out how to administer tasks inside the scanner to try to understand what is going on in the brain. This emotion recognition paradigm is a fascinating one. It is unsurprising that the amygdala shows increased responsiveness in those who are altruistic; the amygdala is one of the brain structures most closely associated with emotional expression, but also emotional memory. So, from a neuropsychological perspective, these results confirm what one might predict.
As a Christian neuropsychologist, the question of biological markers and altruism is an important one to consider. As you might imagine, for a non-theistic materialist, the assumption might be that the larger amygdala causes increased altruism, but what if the direction is reversed? What if those who exhibit consistently other-centered behaviors develop improved amygdala function? I shared with someone the other day that I believe Jesus, in his humanity, had the most exquisitely integrated brain of any person ever; there was no malfunction, there was no disintegration. His brain functioned the way all of our brains should function. But the New Testament also calls each of us to wholeness. I am particularly fond of John 13 to 17 where Jesus practically demonstrates other centered love and tells us to love one another like he loved us. Then in his prayer, he prayed that “they would be one as he and the Father were one.” Jesus was highly altruistic, the perfect picture of wholeness, and calls us to relational integration or what my friend Larry Crabb might call “relational holiness.” Neuroscientists are increasingly recognizing the brain as not just as the organ to make our bodies move and think, but that it is a relational organ. So when Jesus tells us to love one another like he loves, or when Paul tells us to put on the new self, we are being called into a life not only of greater other centeredness and greater love, but I would argue, deeper neurological integration.
In terms of the reconciling power of God’s grace and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, God absolutely has the ability to change our hearts, but in so doing, he also equips us for greater neuropsychological health and wholeness. Unfortunately, it is all too common that Christians don’t live into that reality and we continue to live disintegrated.
I might also anticipate another question: why is it then that non-believers might be more altruistic, kind, charitable, etc. than non-believers. I would offer a couple of thoughts: first, those one time snapshots fail to account for one’s progressive sanctification. John Newton said once, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” God’s ongoing grace has a role in our sanctification, which I believe includes other-centeredness. The second observation I would offer is that God’s common grace allows remarkable may allow for compassion even amongst non-believers. The question that falls to us as believers, though, is what do I do with the gift that I have been given? Will I choose to live toward wholeness in Christ or not?