"Tragedy of life is what dies within us while we live--the death of genuine feeling, the death of inspired response, the awareness that makes it possible to feel the pain or the glory of others." -Norman Cousins
In high school, I was very busy with school, activities and life. I overdid it, triggering a seizure at school. Many witnesses thought it was a classmate on acid. I was 15 and diagnosed with epilepsy. My regimen of EEGs, daily meds and uncomfortable sessions with neurologists got me interested in the brain.
We know what we do and think affects our brains. Our brains evolve. Contrary to misconceptions, our grey matter continues to shift and change depending on what we experience. The esteemed geneticist and Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard, in his towering work Altruism, asserts his compelling findings on the brain and how compassion can transform it:
"The plasticity of the brain plays a large role in our capacity for individual transformation. For a long time, an almost universally accepted dogma in the neuroscience field stated that once formed and structured, the adult brain doesn't produce any more neurons and changes only through decline with age.
Today we know this doctrine was completely wrong. One of the major discoveries of the last 30 years concerns neuroplasticity, a term that takes into account the fact that the brain changes constantly when an individual is exposed to new situations. The adult brain in fact remains extraordinarily malleable."
What keeps our brains growing and evolving? We have our "lizard brain" that is based in the amygdala that regulates our fight or flight instincts. Our executive decision-making function is in the prefrontal cortex. Our self awareness comes from the insula.
I strongly believe there is also a philanthropic center of our brains, which is powered by the production of oxytocin. This is where altruism and compassion live. Where our connection to one another resides. Not just our spirit of giving, but what generates and sustains our generosity and care for one another.
According to the Harvard Business Review: "People have been debating where generosity comes from for centuries--with one side saying it's not in our nature (i.e., survival of the fittest), and the other arguing that because we've always worked in groups, it must be. And each camp makes a good case: different studies have connected altruism with areas of the brain associated with self-control (which suggests it takes more effort to think about others) and with reward (which suggests you're only being 'generous' to make yourself feel good)."
Neuroscience is also showing us that we tend to convert uncomfortable matters, especially those involving humans, into abstract thoughts. This is contributing to the trend I see in the dehumanization of giving.
In Simon Sinek's wonderful book Leaders Eat Last, he asserts: "The more distance there is between us amplifies the abstraction and the harder it becomes to see each other as human." In fact, when we see photos of homeless people during an fMRI, our brains don't light up where it would for people we know or like. It fires up portions of our brains where inanimate objects reside--closer to furniture. Why? Because we can't invest the time, empathy, energy in thinking about the needy, so we create a mental short cut. Nameless and faceless people can be tidily put aside as things in our cranial hard drive.
Why is it that ZIP codes with high concentrations of families making more than $200,000 a year give at 50 percent less than the average U.S. ZIP code? I don't believe these people are less generous, just more removed from need.
I have had the privilege and opportunity to meet with hundreds of would-be "philanthropists." These are smart, well-meaning people who want to address poverty, public education, homelessness, veterans' issues and so on. Their contact with these populations and issues has been primarily through the news and research. They have not been to the homeless shelter, public elementary campus or interacted directly with the poor and vulnerable.
At the California Community Foundation, we help donors define their philanthropy. Then we take them on tours to meet the leaders, experts, organizations and beneficiaries. We immerse them in the realities to overcome the abstraction. These philanthropists get first-hand experiences that catalyze emotional connections. They move from conceptual charity to concrete change. From remote transaction to real transformation. And most important, from sympathy to compassion.
After seven years, my epilepsy disappeared as curiously as it started and I was declared "cured." But many brains are still experiencing philanthropic seizures.
I have witnessed the transformation of donors who get out from behind their computers and engage with the people and organizations in their philanthropic fields of interest. No PET scans to prove it, but their hearts and minds grew as well!
The more we test our biases, certainties and assumptions by directly experiencing our feelings and expressing our compassion, the more we energize our philanthropic brains. Our philanthropy gets humanized and embodies the definition of philanthropy--our love for one another.
This giving season, we all need to directly connect to the issues, organizations and people who need our help. Call up your local community foundation and find out how you can be a partner in real, fulfilling and tangible change for both you and the receiver.