Friday, July 16, 2010

Dacher Keltner, Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (2009)

When I first saw Born to Be Good at the store in a display of books, the title nearly turned me off. It sounded like a self-improvement book, a genre I generally avoid. But the subtitle caught my attention. It suggested that this was a scientific presentation, so I flipped the pages and saw references to Paul Ekman's work on facial expressions --- research that I had heard of, but never read --- along with references to Darwin, Frans DeWaal, and even the musician Steve Reich. And the author Dacher Keltner, a name that I was unfamiliar with, is a professor of psychology at my alma mater, the University of California, so I took a chance. I was not disappointed, notwithstanding the kitschy references to jen and the jen ratio, a Confucian measure of one's happiness.

Born to Be Good is in the genre of scientific literature about what it means to be human, so it fits with Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009 post), Marco Iacoboni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, all which document the social, cooperative, and even altruistic nature of the human species and the evolutionary origins of cooperation and altruism within our very social species. If there was a study in contrasts to read after Richard Wrangham's Demonic Males (July 1, 2010 post) about the dark, violent side of human nature, Born to Be Good is it. Keltner even stole a chapter title from Frans DeWaal's The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post) and titled one of his chapters "Survival of the Kindest." Moreover, Born to Be Good fits in the lineage of research represented by Antonio Damassio's The Feeling of What Happens, which documents the fundamental role of emotion in human decision-making.

"Emotions are involuntary commitment devices that bind us to one another in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships," Keltner says. Emotions are communicated through several sensory means: visually through facial expressions, which Keltner documents based on his own research and that of his teacher and mentor, Paul Ekman, explaining how muscles in the face are linked to and controlled by neural pathways in the brain that make them reliable indicators of emotion. In facial expression, we recognize embarrassment, which signals our moral sense of wrongdoing and respect for the judgment of others. In facial expression, the smile signals friendly intent and affection among peers and movement toward cooperation and intimacy. In facial expression, laughter triggers mirror neurons in the brains of others that builds cooperative bonds between one who laughs and the other who hears the laugh. Keltner tells us that teasing is not the same as bullying, and is a type of playful communication designed to ferret out another's commitments that bolsters social life. Emotions are communicated through touch, and the skin, our largest sensory organ, evolved to be an important part of social communication among humans and their predecessors.

Keltner is at his best when he discussed the evolutionary origins of love (trust) and compassion and evolutionary development of the vagus nerve, which releases a hormone, oxytocin, that is linked to feelings of sympathy, concern over the vulnerability of others, and caregiving, and which can be stimulated by touch, and is linked to monogamy in certain species. "We have neuropeptides that enable trust and devotion, and a branch of nerves that connects the brain, the voice, and the heart that enables caretaking," says Keltner. "We are wired for good." The other books cited above bear this out, based on other research as well. But still, the dark side of human social behavior documented by Wrangham should not be forgotten as we experience awe for others and even nature writ large. Wrangham makes his case that violence might be important to survival in some primates, although he considers that it could be fatal to the survival of humans.

But Keltner makes the other case --- that love, compassion, are caregiving cooperation.

The big idea here is how information is communicated and the capabilities of the human mind. And again, as in the books discussed in several prior posts, it is information at a chemical level that is a key form of communication. "The profound vulnerability of our big-brained offspring wired us into an instinct to care. It created in us a biologically based capacity for sympathy. It produced a vagus nerve, loaded up with oxytocin receptors, the provenance of feelings of devotion, sacrifice, and trust. It yielded a rich set of signals --- empathetic sighs, oblique eyebrows, and soothing touch, which trigger vagus nerve response and oxytocin and opioid release in the recipient, giving rise to oceanic feelings of connection."

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