Although I believe that everything in our lives benefits from the use of intention, in the Intention Experiment, on this website and in my workshops I’ve deliberately chosen to emphasize using intention for an altruistic purpose.
This just seemed like common sense to me – after all, if our thoughts are all that powerful, then instead of only focusing on getting that new BMW or new job, maybe we can use this power collectively to help alleviate the vast catalogue of suffering on the planet – particularly in these times of great upheaval.
But after our big Intention Experiments and also at my workshops, I was fascinated to learn about the profound effect that our group Intention Experiments have on everybody involved. During my workshops, I ask people to break into small groups and send intention to someone with a healing challenge.
Healing heals the healer
Invariably, the effect is nothing short of transformative. Those sent intention report remarkable healing effects — but so do the senders. Perfect strangers begin to hug each other. The separation between people lessens. The love in the room is utterly palpable.
As many of you reported on our Peace Intention Experiment survey, a similar situation occurred when you sent intention for peace in Sri Lanka. Hundreds of the participants reported feeling far more happy and peaceful themselves, with more love for perfect strangers.
All this positive effect among the people doing the sending suggested to me that something about sending intention for an altruistic purpose feels good – as good as, if not better than, sending intention for yourself. So I wanted to find out whether this kind of caring, compassion and the desire to help is somehow hardwired into our very make up.
I didn’t have to look too far. I came across a fascinating study by James Rilling and Gregory Berns, two American neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who decided to observe the real-time behavior of the brain during an altruistic act by scanning people as they were engaged in a true social interaction.
They employed functional MRI scanners to record the brain activity of 36 women as they took part in a game called “Prisoner’s Dilemma’, a classic psychological model used to assess levels of cooperation between two people. In every round of the game, each partner is allowed to choose whether to cooperate with the other partner or to ‘defect’ – to operate selfishly, for his or her own gain.
In the classic version of this game, two people are arrested for robbing a bank and placed in separate cells isolated from each other. The prosecutor offers each of them a deal. They can either confess or remain silent. If one of them confesses while the other remains silent, all charges will be dropped against the confessor, but the silent one will get a maximum sentence.
If both confess, they’ll be convicted but will be given early parole. If both are silent, they’ll only be charged with possession of firearms.
The ‘dilemma’ is that while each is better off confessing, the outcome is worse than it would be if each remained silent.
Test of altruism
The study is thought to examine the nature of cooperation and a test of altruism, as the two people are more likely to benefit if they work together than if they pursue their own self-interests.
It also tests the idea that operating from the heart – that is, acting against one’s own best interests – works better in group situations than operating purely for rational self-interest.
In the Emory University version of the game, when the two players were asked to independently to choose to cooperate with each other or to defect, each would receive a sum of money depending on both players’ choices in the round.
Once again, the biggest reward was for defecting.
Rilling and Berns were fascinated to find that mutual cooperation — both players choosing the same outcome — was the most common outcome.
But interestingly, when the partners cooperated with each other, both demonstrated activation in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate cortex - the same area of the brain activated when people receive rewards or undergo a pleasurable experience.
Giving felt good – as soon as getting something for yourself. Doing something for someone else literally was its own reward.
Rilling and Berns had also examined brain activity in their participants when they were playing with a computer as the partner. In those instances, the pleasure zone areas of the brain did not light up.
Giving is hard-wired
“Our study shows, for the first time, that social cooperation is intrinsically rewarding to the human brain, even in the face of pressures to the contrary,” said Berns, who is associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
“It suggests that the altruistic drive to cooperate is biologically embedded — either genetically programmed or acquired through socialization during childhood and adolescence.”
Rillings believes that our in-built reward system reinforces our positive choices in helping – the more we do it, the better it feels – which in turn spurs us on to help others.
As Clint Kilts, a co-investigator in the study, noted, ‘It defines the most complex form of the human genesis of a social bond.’
We help others and cooperate because it feels good to do so. Sending intention to others feels so good because by doing for others we are literally doing for ourselves.