The Neuroscience of Kindness
Acts of kindness produce endorphins, a neurotransmitter that helps alleviate pain. Kindness can lower stress levels, which will decrease the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Decreased stress will also help lower blood pressure. The social bonding aspect of kindness also helps produce oxytocin in the body. This is another feel-good neurotransmitter. With so many powerful effects of kindness, it is no wonder that we are hardwired to want to give and receive it as often as we can.
Studies have shown that giving and receiving kindness will increase the production of serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate our mood in the brain. Research shows that mirror neurons respond to kindness as if you are receiving the kindness even as you are the one giving it. In other words, when a person gives kindness, their own mirror neurons simultaneously create an inner feeling as if they were receiving it themselves. This effect is known as the “helper’s high”.
Mirror neurons are stimulated when observing another person perform a task as if you are performing the task yourself. Neurons fire exactly as if making the movement yourself instead of simply observing it happen. Mirror neuron systems in the brain allow us to understand the actions and intentions of others. The better our minds understand how others act and intend, the better we can learn from them. Unless we develop our own capacity to understand and appreciate the actions of others, we will not have the empathy necessary to engage the world in love. Mirror neurons come into play when we recognize facial expressions. You might be able to recall a time in your life where you saw someone get hurt and noticed that you cringed your shoulders as if you somehow felt the pain as well. In fact, basic emotional states expressed cross-culturally are extremely similar. Anger, boredom, worry, joy, and fear can be identified in people in vastly different cultures simply by looking at their faces.
Imagine for a moment someone smiling at you. Do you feel joy? Perhaps it will make you smile as well. This is an example of mirror neurons at work. In this “helpers high” our mirror neurons play a role in us feeling joy and love when we offer joy and love to others. It is a natural euphoria because we are hardwired to feel the very love that we offer to others. This is especially the case when we see the cues and expressions from them of their joy and love of receiving our affection.
God’s gift to us of mirror neurons allows us to understand and appreciate the fruits of the Spirit working in others because we are hardwired and feel the same fruits of the Spirit working in us. Love is hardwired into our being and God has made it feel glorious to share it with others as it is being shared simultaneously in ourselves through our mirror neurons.
As you know them by their fruits, so too will the fruit of the Spirit be known in you vicariously. That we can know others are fruitful is a testament to the fact that we are hardwired to know and appreciate God’s goodness. It is not only the goodness of others that we can recognize, but also goodness working in us.