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The Soul of Science

Michael Shermer

The Pleasure of Purpose

How can we attain deep-time awareness and global consciousness when our sense of purpose is grounded in an ancient evolutionary heritage? Thomas Jefferson suggested one answer in a letter to Thomas Law in 1814: "These good acts give pleasure, but how it happens that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses." Scientific research supports this proposition. Experiments with the "prisoner's dilemma"—a game in which one person's cooperation or defection elicits a varying payoff depending on whether the other person cooperates or defects—reveal that subjects adopt a cooperative strategy after multiple rounds, particularly when they can interact to establish trust. Usually, the most selfish thing to do—that is, gain the most in the long run—is to begin by trusting and cooperating, and then do whatever your partner does. Trust ... with verification.

Our brains reinforce cooperative behavior. In one study by James Rilling and colleagues at Emory University, subjects that played the prisoner's dilemma while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that cooperation activated the same brain areas as desserts, cocaine, beautiful faces and other pleasures. These responsive areas, the anteroventral striatum (the so-called "pleasure center," for which rats will endlessly press a bar to have it stimulated, even foregoing food) and the orbitofrontal cortex (related to impulse control and reward processing), are rich in dopamine, a neurochemical related to addictive behaviors. Tellingly, the cooperative subjects reported increased feelings of trust toward and camaraderie with their game partners. In addition to dopamine, neuroscientists believe that oxytocin—a hormone produced during eating, breast feeding and sexual orgasm—plays a vital role in human bonding and prosocial behaviors. Can we use this knowledge to accentuate purposeful behavior at the personal and global levels?

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