What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness
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Recent breakthroughs in biology and neuroscience reveal that the human brain is primed for selflessness. But how do biology, upbringing, and outside influences intersect to produce altruistic and heroic behavior? And how can we encourage selflessness in corporations, classrooms, and individuals?
Using dozens of fascinating real-life examples, science journalist Elizabeth Svoboda explains how our genes compel us to do good for others, how going through suffering is linked to altruism, and how acting generously can greatly improve our mental health.
Svoboda argues that it’s a common misconception that heroes are innately destined to be that way. In fact, anyone can be a hero if they’re committed to developing their heroic potential.
it’s activating is like proof of concept. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—this area definitely has connections to the dopaminergic system, so it’s reasonable that those areas are activated.” I listen attentively as Harbaugh explains the blood-flow patterns in various areas of my brain, but I can hardly wait to ask the one question that’s been on my mind ever since I stepped out of the scanner in Oregon. “In your study, you classified people as egoists or altruists based on the brain
close my eyes and conjure up an image of Craig, his chest rising and falling with the flow of his breath. It strikes me that he has probably gotten through many difficult times in his life, just as I have. That suffering is pretty much unavoidable, regardless of our parentage or our family’s means, our appearance or our intelligence. I mouth the phrases to myself, directing them to Craig in my mind—may you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be free from suffering—and this time, they seem
own pain compels us to be more attentive to other people’s needs and to intervene when we see someone in the clutches of the kind of suffering we know so well. In fact, the more intimately familiar we become with our suffering, the greater responsibility we can start to feel for other people in similar situations, as the remarkable trajectory of Jodee Blanco’s life illustrates. Over the years, as she took stock of the horrible things that happened to her in school, she came to see her past
the more seasoned heroes, the Superheroes Anonymous conference begins to wind down. Some of the attendees leave, clad in their self-created capes and masks, as the sun begins to set. But for the most hardcore would-be heroes, there’s one final event: Life’s Homeless Outreach training workshop, to be followed by a group patrol session in the streets of Lower Manhattan. We congregate at a couple of tables where the real-life superheroes have set out large boxes of donated items: travel shampoos
me, since I can’t see myself fitting the macho mold, to realize that heroic action can arise as surely from shrewd judgment as from physical brawn. Sometimes that kind of considered judgment requires would-be heroes to take their egos out of the situation. Running into the fray to try to stop a crime might earn you recognition for your bravery, but it might also land you on the obituaries page—a tragedy, considering that alerting nearby authorities might have resolved the crime just as