In the current issue (May2015) of The Atlantic, Sam Kean delves into the current research on altruism. It appears that our pleasure centers are stimulated when we give.
I'm not a generous person – I tend to hold onto what I have pretty tightly. But there came a day in 1982 when I encountered a beggar in the financial district of San Francisco. Suddenly I had the urge to give him something.I pondered this unusual feeling, unable to determine where it might have come from, but finally decided to give him just a quarter. Maybe I'd find out, in the giving, where the urge came from.
I did. Suddenly I was thrust below the level of ordinary consciousness, to a realm where the beggar's “thank you” seemed to come from me or through me rather than from the outside. I wrote of this encounter to my first spiritual teacher, in Japan. “You are the beggar,” he wrote back. Indeed.
So I wonder now about this research Kean explores. The possibility of going beyond the separate self into another realm where giver and receiver are not separate doesn't occur to any of the researchers into altruism – nor to author Kean. But because the initial urge when I saw the beggar seemed to be an altruistic one, I have to wonder what changes in the brain when we go to that place where we know unity with another.