Neurology professor receives $1.5 million grant to study if generosity is good for one’s health
From left, Paul Zak, MD, clinical professor of neurology, LLU; Lori Uber-Zak, DO, neurologist, Loma Linda University Medical Center; and Carlos Fayard, PhD, clinical and academic psychiatrist and associate professor of psychology, LLU, are investigating the neural and hormonal footprints of the virtues of resilience, generosity, and compassion.
Paul Zak, MD, has a challenge on his hands.
He has three years to find out if generosity pays off. And just to sweeten the pot, the John Templeton Foundation has generously provided $1.5 million to help him research the virtues of resilience and compassion while he’s at it.
In accepting the award, Dr. Zak—a clinical professor of neurology at Loma Linda University and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University—proves that generosity can, in fact, make one grateful. Very grateful!
“Thank God for John Templeton!” he exclaims while a grin spreads across his face. His collaborators at Loma Linda University include Lori Uber-Zak, DO, a neurologist at the Medical Center who also happens to be his wife, and Carlos Fayard, PhD, a clinical and academic psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Loma Linda University.
The John Templeton Foundation is one of the more unique philanthropic organizations in the world. “The foundation serves as a catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions,” Dr. Zak notes. “It funds research into the laws of nature and the universe, as well as exploring questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity—virtues often associated with religion and spirituality.”
He goes on to explain that the John Templeton Foundation was organized in a three-person office located on the second floor of a garage in 1987 by Sir John Templeton, an American investor who was knighted by the British Empire for his humanitarian outreach. In the past 20 years, it has expanded the value of its portfolio to approximately $1.1 billion in assets.
What sets Templeton apart from similar benevolent organizations is its unique emphasis on funding “rigorous scientific research and related cutting-edge scholarship” on what it calls its core themes.
According to <www.templeton.org>, the core themes include many topics that probably do not appear in the areas of interest of any other foundation in the world: creativity, curiosity, emergence, entrepreneurship, evolution, forgiveness, freedom and free will, future-mindedness, generosity, gratitude, honesty, humility, human flourishing, infinity, mind and intelligence, new concepts of God, prayer and meditation, progress, purpose, reliability, science and religion, self-control, spiritual capital, spiritual development, spiritual transformation, spirituality and health, thrift, ultimate reality, unconditional love, wisdom, and worship.
While a glance at the core themes might lead to the conclusion that the foundation is an overtly religious organization, it is not. While it funds a wide variety of research projects and programs that involve the world’s largest faith traditions and employs practitioners of many religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, the foundation also funds and employs non-believers.
Dr. Zak will be conducting his research into the virtues of resilience, generosity, and compassion in a series of three separate projects involving three neuroeconomics experiments each for a total of nine individual studies.
Project 1: Resilience will focus on the role of the value of rolling with the punches to get on with life after experiencing setbacks. The aim of the investigation is to determine how genes and the brain interact to produce resilience. “Because all of us face adversity at one time or another,” Dr. Zak observes, “understanding the physiologic, social, and spiritual resources that permit people to overcome adversity is an important and, I believe, overlooked aspect of positive human experiences.” Experiment 1 of project 1 will investigate whether the release of oxytocin—a neuropeptide that has been scientifically linked to generosity, maternity, sexuality, and other experiences of human attachment—is high in resilient people who are shown trust. Experiment 2 of project 1 involves genotyping resilient people and correlating the findings with trusting behaviors. Experiment 3 will measure brain activity in resilient and non-resilient genotypes while trusting in a stranger.
Project 2: Generosity will explore the question of whether there is a brain representation of generosity; that is, whether generous acts leave any neural or hormonal footprints in the brain. Dr. Zak notes that it will further investigate whether generosity leads to a positive feedback loop where one experience of generosity leads to another. Experiment 1 of project 2 will determine if observed generosity raises oxytocin levels in the brain and facilitates subsequent generosity. Experiment 2 will determine if prosocial elevation—a condition arising when a subject witnesses an experience that reveals the better nature of other persons and causes the observer to perform prosocial deeds in response—raises oxytoxin and facilitates generosity. Experiment 3 will measure the neural correlates of elevation and observed generosity and its effect on generosity.
Project 3: Compassion will evaluate why humans exhibit compassion towards some people and in some situations, but not others. Project 3 will examine the neural and biochemical basis for this important virtue which, Dr. Zak asserts, is a core aspect of all major religions.
He quotes Sir John Templeton—who, at age 94 is still very active in the foundation—as saying that “compassion benefits both the giver and the receiver.”
Experiment 1 of project 3 will examine whether oxytocin is released when we are compassionate. Experiment 2 will determine if compassion can be increased with an infusion of oxytocin. Experiment 3 will measure compassion in the brain with and without an infusion of oxytocin.
According to the first publication to come from Dr. Zak’s research program—an ABC News story authored by Carla Williams in November 2007—giving people a dose of oxytocin by nasal spray resulted in a surprising upturn in generosity: subjects who received the spray were willing to share 80 percent more money with strangers whom they perceived as being in need than other test subjects who received a placebo spray.
Dr. Zak is optimistic that the findings of his research will benefit our understanding of generosity, philanthropy, and ultimately, personal happiness. “Sir John Templeton has written that ‘By giving, you grow,’” he notes. “We’re starting from the hypothesis that accelerating human flourishing requires understanding the innate and learned capacity to respond to the good and bad that life throws at us.”
He continues by noting that his research projects are “designed to go beyond simply correlating brain activity with behaviors,” and notes that they are intended to dig “into the neurochemistry of positive experiences.
“By connecting brain chemistry to neural activity, this project provides a more complete hypothesis causally. Just as importantly, this approach directly identifies interventions we can use to increase our own happiness.”
Dr. Zak concludes by suggesting that “if we know where resilience, generosity, and compassion come from in the brain, we might be able to design environments where these happen more frequently.”
By James Ponder