Friday, May 23, 2008

Brain Research and the Passions

On his blog, Neuromarketing, Roger Dooley has a though provoking post entitled "Money, Social Status Similar in Brain." In the essay he asks:

Why do people do things that will gain them social approval? It turns out that the same parts of the brain are activated for a positive social outcome as for a monetary reward. In other words, the same reward circuitry is turned on both by social and monetary gains. Corporate marketers as well as non-profit fundraisers have always known that most individuals crave social approval, but these new findings show how our brains process these social rewards and how they relate to money.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas offers a similar conclusion in one of her seminal works on the economics that she co-authored with Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979). In this work see tries to answer an obvious, but often unasked question, why do we want goods? Her answer is that we desire material possessions, for example money, not as ends in themselves. Rather we desire things for social status. For Douglas and Isherwood at the heart of this status is freedom. A wealth person is one who both has relatively more options than his or her neighbor AND who has to invest a relatively smaller percentage of effort to acquire that which s/he wants.

So, a person is wealthy not on any absolute scale, but within a given social context. And who is wealthy? The person who, for example, not only has a relatively wide array of food options but who also needs to expend little effort (relative to others) to get the desired food. High options + low work = wealth.

So back to the brain.

Dooley writes that current brain research suggests, well in his own words, "that our brains are performing a balancing act when making a decision and that social benefits may be weighed directly against monetary costs." This he thinks is a possible explanation for what "a surprising number of people were early adopters of the Toyota Prius, despite the fact that any annual fuel cost savings would be offset by the higher initial cost of the car." For at least some of these early adopters, "driving an obviously 'green' vehicle would be a reward in itself and would justify the higher price." And so, to "continue the Toyota theme, could this reward system also explain why people will pay many thousands more for a Lexus than the equivalent Toyota model, even though the difference in features and function don't themselves justify the price differential?" In both cases, the owners see their purchase as a way to elevate their relative "social status." Current brain research, along with the early work of Douglas Isherwood, might also explain "why non-profit fundraising is always more successful when donors are recognized in a visible and public way." Successful fundraising requires it seems some recognition of those who donate. And so whether "it's as simple as calling a donor a "Gold Patron" in an event program or as significant as naming a building after him, public recognition is important to the vast majority of donors."

While the brain research, Dooley's application of the research, and Douglas and Isherwood's work are interesting in and of themselves, what is left unexamined is the role of human freedom in making the decision to exchange money for status, or for that matter status for money. That the same area of the brain processes money and social status (and other research suggests that the same part of the brain that processes spending decisions also processes pain; read about that research here: "The Pain of Buying") does not answer the question as to why I might by a Prius. How is it that I make that exchange?

Here we enter into the rather murky world of human motivate. Psychoanalysis, for example, would argue what actually motivates me in a given situation is largely unknown to me. For many people both during Freud's life time and since, his argument was an affront to human freedom and dignity. "After all," or so the argument went (and goes), "I am not a cauldron of conflicting desires. I live by the light of reason" (or "the Gospel," or "common sense," or "ethics."). Well, not so fast says Freud and now evidently some brain research.

For the Fathers of the Church, I am not motivated, at least initially, by reason, or the Gospel, or common sense, or ethics, but by the passions. The passions are my disordered desires. What makes these desires disordered is that they are self-referential. My desires serve me as I try and live a life of pleasure and avoid a life of pain. But what my desires don't do is draw me closer to God. For St Maximos the Confessor, for example, my passions are disordered because they lock me in on myself; I am forever running toward pleasure and fleeing from pain.

And, the physiology of my brain is part of this process. But what's interesting is not simply the link between social status and money, but also the link between money and pain. All three of these share common physiological links. According to some research, "brain scans predicted buying behavior almost as well as the self-reported intentions of the subjects. In other words, absent any knowledge of what the subject intended to do, viewing the brain scan was nearly as predictive as asking the subject what he would do." But, the social context (and this, I would suggest, includes social status) is also important.

The society is important because "it isn't just the dollar amount, it's the context of the transaction. Thus, people can spend hundreds of dollars on accessories when buying a car with little pain, while a vending machine that takes 75 cents and produces nothing is very aggravating. Auto luxury bundles are designed to minimize negative activation because their price tag covers multiple luxury items. The consumer can't relate a specific dollar amount to a particular item, e.g., $1000 for leather seats, and hence can't easily evaluate the fairness of the deal or whether the utility of the accessory is worth the price."

Yes, yes, yes, I can hear you ask. But what does this have to do with the spiritual life? What has this to do with my struggles against my own passions? Simply this: The passions—what I desire, what goals are worth the cost of my efforts if you will—not only have a physiological basis, they are also highly social or if you will traditional. Broadly speaking, my tradition tells me what desire to value, what purchases are worthy making (and I make these purchase by spending money, time and/or effort).

Likewise, asceticism—the effort needed to re-direct my desires so that they draw me closer to God—also has both a physiological and social or traditional character. We cannot grow in holiness, in real and lasting freedom, if we neglect either our physical bodies or our social situations. Yes I need to fast, I need to pray, I need to give alms, for example. But I also need to be a member of a community that values not simply fast and praying, and caring for the poor, but my fasting, my praying, my service to those in need. My ascent to grace is just as much bodily and social process as is my fall from grace. The body and our peers are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory