Every story that we’ve been told ingrains in us the idea that we were born to be selfish. Left to our own devices, without the taming influence of a social contract, we would act according to our true natures, which is to say cold-bloodedly and entirely for self-preservation.
Many biologists argue that doing ontp others is ultimately an act with selfish motives. Those instances of true nobility of action derive from some rare moral exception, which temporarily suppresses our innately selfish impulse for personal survival.
This is entirely in keeping with most of what is written about the power of intention. Most of the literature on intention or manifestation has to do with creating personal abundance: using intention to get more stuff for me.
Since the start of The Intention Experiment I have rejected the notion that intention and manifestation should be used purely for personal gain.
The altruistic power of thought
I believe that if thought is so powerful, and group thought more powerful still, then we have, in a sense, an obligation to do something more than using it to park a new BMW out front.
This was the thinking behind our small and large-scale Intention Experiments. All should be designed with some large philanthropic implication: making food more plentiful; lowering violence, cleaning up polluted water.
Nevertheless, the most remarkable thing about altruistic intention is that it has an extraordinary rebound effect. What has impressed me most about the results we’ve had in The Intention Experiment thus far is not simply the extraordinary effects we’ve had on the targets – whether seeds, plants, leaves, water or a war-torn country like Sri Lanka – but also the effects upon the participants.
In the last three studies – the Peace Intention Experiment in autumn 2008, the first Clean Water Experiment last June and the second Clean Water Experiment in September — I have surveyed the participants several months later to find out what their experiences were during the experiment and if anything in their lives had changed in any way as a result of their participation in our experiments.
I have been truly astonished by the results. In all three experiments, the majority of our participants were novice intenders. Although nearly half of the participants in both experiments were experienced meditators, and most had read The Intention Experiment, the majority of PIE and CWE participants had not practiced Powering Up, the intention program I developed, until the experiment.
Nevertheless, in both experiments the experience itself provided them with a rare opportunity to experience the transformative power of group intention with an altruistic purpose.
Despite the fact that their group consisted of total strangers scattered all over the world, a third of all PIE participants and nearly a third of all the CWE participants felt an overwhelming sense of unity with the other participants. Half the PIE intenders (one-third of the CWE intenders) felt a surge of compassionate love and in both instances half the participants felt peaceful.
A third of PIE participants felt a connection with the Sri Lankans — the target of our Peace Intention Experiment — and, remarkably, half of our CWE participants felt connected to the water.
In our forum, many of our participants commented that although they were experienced meditators and used to feeling peaceful, the bliss experienced was unlike anything they’d ever experienced before.
In the Peace Experiment, approximately a third felt more peaceful and compassionate than usual and more connected with others in their lives. Nearly half were more optimistic that world peace is achievable.
With the CWE, nearly 60 per cent said their mood had profoundly changed: they were more peaceful or compassionate than usual, and felt happier and more connected with others. Nearly a third felt more optimistic that clean water in the world for all is achievable.
What is most fascinating of all, however, is the long-term effect on relationships with others. Although about a quarter feel more love for their loved ones, more than a third – the largest response of all — experienced a profound shift that can only be described as an impersonal, everpresent feeling of love.
More than a third of participants in both experiments claimed they felt more love for everyone they came into contact with. Nearly 40 per cent of the PIE participants and 23 per cent of the CWEgroup said their relationships with strangers improved, with the next best improvement among friends.
These findings have prompted me to studying why people are permanently changed by altruism, and I’ve discovered a few fascinating clues.
Joshua Green and Jonathan Cohen, two psychologists formerly of Princeton University, examined the effect in the neurology of onlookers to victims of violence. They discovered something remarkable: the same network of neurons in the brain lights up when the witnesses observe the potential of harm to another as when a mother sees a photo of her baby.
That basic capacity for caring and responding to suffering extends not only to our young but to strangers and also appears to be basic to our biology.
The rewards of altruism
Other neuroscientists called Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman at the National Institutes of Health examined what happens within the brain either when participants receive a big monetary reward for ourselves or make a large charitable donation. The researchers discovered that either donating or receiving a big windfall had the same effect in lighting up the primitive mesolimbic reward pathways in the brain that get aroused during eating or having sex.
Nevertheless, those volunteers who chose to make a donation had additional activity in the the subgenual cortex/septal portion of the brain. This portion of the brain is linked with bonding and social attachment.
Ayn Rand once wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”
This study shows just the reverse. Giving not only feels good, but is the primary impulse – and not selfishness – that keeps us all together.
May you find permanent joy in giving this holiday season.