The essence of affection. The cuddle chemical. In other words, oxytocin.
This hormone, produced daily by your brain and mine, is the reason I’m on my back, trying to remain perfectly still inside a magnetic-resonance-imaging machine secreted in the basement of a cheerless building at the California Institute of Technology. Even though I am cocooned by earplugs and noise-cancellation headphones, it’s freakishly loud in here, a mix of jackhammer pulses and a hurricane whoosh of air. In other words, it’s your typical MRI experience — save for the Apple laptop bolted a couple of feet above my head, the mouse on my chest, and the unbearably sad video playing on the MacBook screen.
I have volunteered for this, signing up to be a test subject for Dr. Love, aka Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who popularized “neuroeconomics,” an emerging field that combines economics with biology, neuroscience, and psychology. In this first of three experiments, I’m helping Zak’s researchers gauge the relationship between empathy and generosity. While best-selling behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) and Steven D. Levitt (half of the Freakonomics duo) ponder how we make economic decisions, Zak wants to figure out why we do what we do.