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Which path for philanthropy?

Tonya Hoffman  is founder of Leading Minds, specialising in leadership and performance development for senior executives, high net worth individuals and family businesses. hoffman@leadingmindsuk.com

Research carried out on other primates has shown that humans experience a powerful biological reaction for empathy. This means philanthropy should work best when our actions are directly linked to our natural compassionate energy, reports Tonya Hoffman

Individuals and families are increasingly looking for direction as they become clear on their values and the way in which they want their wealth to make a larger social contribution. As they focus on giving, they often overlook their own personal returns. Recent scientific studies have shown that giving (which includes care, concern and compassion) activates the part of the brain that is related to happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness. How does concern for others actually create a greater state of well-being within oneself? How does this relate to your family and your business?

Philanthropists are in an enviable position to generate sought-after physiological changes. Who wouldn't want to re-calibrate their set-point for happiness, joy and energy? This, of course, is more than just giving funds away. It is the result of a carefully structured thought process.

Research has revealed that the brain continually changes as a result of our experiences – whether through fresh connections between neurons or through the generation of utterly new neurons. This has generated deeper insights into how the brain's responses can be altered by experience and higher level thinking.
 
Until 1998 it was thought that the brain was a fixed entity from birth, though we each had the ability to nurture our minds. Research on the mind has revealed that specific experiences actually create change in the brain. The conclusion is that a person, through his or her own efforts, can bring about lasting positive changes in brain function that are even more far-reaching than other mind-altering treatments, the most obvious being forms of medication, in their impact on emotions/behaviour. As a result, we can directly impact brain responses we once thought were "hardwired". This has profound pragmatic implications for the development of the mind and our ability to decrease our response to stress, stabilise emotional balance, increase concentration and enhance coping strategies.
 
Our emotional balance is a characteristic ratio of right-to-left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of moods we are likely to feel day-to-day. The left frontal lobe is related to happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness. The right frontal lobe addresses distressing emotions such as sadness, anxiety and worry. This left-right ratio creates an emotional set-point, the mean around which our daily moods swing. Each of us has the capacity to shift moods, at least a bit, and thus change this ratio. For example, if we recall a particular positive memory causes activation in the left lobe and a subsequent shift in the balance of brain activity. But usually such changes are minimal and temporary.
 
To make a significant conscious change in the activation of the brain was previously not thought possible. Recent studies have dramatically proven otherwise. What is particularly notable is that the driving mental feature is compassion. The very act of concern for others' well-being positively affects the physical structure of the brain. Research in psychology over the past decades has focused far more on what goes wrong with us (eg, depression, anxiety, confusion) than what goes right with us. The positive side of experience and human goodness has largely been ignored in research. This research now reveals we have greater control over our well-being on multiple-levels. It is not a matter of willing oneself to be 'in a good mood'; we can actually change the structure of the brain by the types of thoughts we have: create long-lasting changes within us.
 
The implications of this research has a direct bearing on individuals who are consciously seeking to develop themselves, as well as specific causes. If, for example, an individual or an organisation is in a state of anxiety or confusion, this will impact on our personal and professional lives. Individuals, however, can actually generate changes to their brain which will then have a direct correlation on their ability to be happier and more productive.

The brain can be trained because the very structure of our brain can be modified. Since the brain is plastic our ability to deal with extreme or adverse conditions can be facilitated by self-directing our mental orientation. The other side is that our brains are also predisposed to be empathetic. We are hard-wired to understand the intentions of others. This automatically happens through the use of the mirror neurons in our brains.
 
Mirror neurons were unwittingly discovered in monkeys when brain cells relating to planning and carrying out movements began to fire off simply by watching someone eat an ice cream. Certain neurons were known to be active when the monkeys performed tasks such as eating, reaching, grabbing, etc, but they also discovered that they fired off when the monkeys watched someone else perform the same specific task. From this, a similar observation-action matching system was discovered in humans.

Humans have mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible and more highly evolved than any of those found in monkeys, a fact that reflects the evolution of sophisticated social abilities. The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialise in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others, but their intentions, the social meaning of their behaviour and their emotions. We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others, not through conceptual reasoning, but through direct simulation; by feeling, not by thinking.

Anytime we watch someone doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron fires, thereby allowing us to 'read' and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated 'theory of other minds'. Professional athletes who often use mental practice and imagery have long exploited the brain's mirror properties perhaps without knowing their biological basis. Observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons. Neurologically, doing and watching are the same.

Because of mirror neurons, we can read intentions. We can anticipate what a person is going to do next. When we see someone about to perform an action – such as picking up a cup of tea – we automatically simulate the action in our own brain. There are circuits in our brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, that inhibit us from moving while we simulate. We can also mirror the emotions of a person. If we see a footballer choke up in emotional distress from missing a goal, mirror neurons in our brain simulate the distress. We automatically have empathy for the player; we know how he feels because we literally feel what he is feeling. This holds true, at the very least, for the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger. Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the nature of empathy.
 
Broken or lost mirror neurons may also explain autism. Without these neurons, a person can no longer understand or empathise with other people emotionally and therefore completely withdraw from the world socially. Many people with autism can recognise an emotional expression, like sadness, on another person's face, or imitate sad looks with their own faces, but they do not feel the emotional significance of the imitated emotion.
 
Mirror neurons provide clues as to how children learn. When children, for example, watch violent television programmes, mirror neurons, as well as brain regions involved in aggression are activated, increasing the probability of violent behaviour minutes or hours afterwards. More than other primate, humans are hard-wired for imitation. Infants just a few minutes old will stick out their tongues as adults do the same. From the earliest stages of development, we observe and practice what others do.

Our mirroring capabilities work best when we are face-to-face. Even with the rapid developments in technology, virtual reality and videos are shadowy substitutes. Person-to-person encounters will continue to play a key role in developing relationships. Philanthropy works best when your actions are in keeping with core values and you are then able to harness your natural compassionate energy about a topic which you believe in deeply and passionately.

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