There Is Scientific Basis to That “Gut Feeling”

Does your heart “swell” when you read about a dog who miraculously saved his master from a house fire or when your child’s teacher describes what a brilliant, diligent, and otherwise wonderful student your son or daughter is? Do you feel queasy as you listen to the tv news reporter explain how a child was dismembered and his body left in garbage bags? Chances are, in both cases, you actually experience something physiological. And if you do, you are like most of the people on the planet. In an investigation (at the University of Southern California and in Beijing) into emotions and how they are related to physical changes in our bodies, as well as moral decisions and behaviors, researchers read or told the participants an emotional true story that was meant to trigger compassion. Afterwards, the participants’ reactions were recorded—their emotional ones, through self-report methods, and the physiological, by brain scans. All in all, the data seem to support a mental-physical-moral connection. In the interviews, some participants described having a visceral response to the story. As it turns out, those “pangs” of emotion they described were actually detectable by brain scan, providing evidence for a psycho-physical relationship. The results are particularly interesting in that some of the participants’ reports reflected introspection: e.g., “I need (or want or resolve) to be more like the person in the story.” What if true stories like those used in the study were incorporated into the public school curriculum? First of all, would that be allowed by politicians? Educators? Parents? And second, do you think it would have a beneficial effect in terms of engendering positive behaviors and/or inhibiting criminal acts on the part of youths? The strategy could also be used as a parenting tool—discussing true events (that prompt compassion) around the dinner table, for example. Are there negative aspects to this approach? What are some, if any, obstacles you see? Finally, can you think of a real-life happening (“story”) that had a profound influence on your moral choices? What if Jaycee Dugard’s captors had experienced the kind of moral foundation discussed herein, provided by parenting, the educational system, or organized religion? Is it possible that Jaycee’s 18-year-long enslavement and torment might never have taken place? Or do you believe that Phillip and Nancy Garrido were just “wired” differently from the beginning and such exposure would not have impacted their disturbing actions? Dr. Immordino-Yang’s research, although needing further analysis and additional studies to corroborate the findings, bears out her theory that these kinds of emotions do lay the groundwork for moral and social learning.