Are humans essentially good, or evil? It’s a question that has fascinated philosophers, artists, and playwright for centuries, and inspired some of our greatest creative works, from Othello to Guernica to Hamilton.
Increasingly, biologists and neuroscientists are wading into the debate, armed with sophisticated brain imaging equipment that provides a window into the tangled neural circuitry that offers clues to our best intentions—and our worst.
At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Richard Davidson and his team are working on several dozen projects at the intersection of neuroscience, education, and human development. After decades of studying and following research, Davidson reveals the good news: From their earliest years, children are prosocial, hardwired for kindness and altruism. He recently released a free Kindness Curriculum for pre-K and kindergarten students.
We caught up with Davidson a few months after the publication of his new book, Altered States: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, written with the author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman. We asked for Davidson’s thoughts on essential human kindness and how to leverage brain development to nurture this kindness in young people.
EDUTOPIA: You have said you believe that humans are biologically wired to be kind, and that it is cultural influences that alter this intrinsic trait. What does this innate basic goodness mean to you?
RICHARD DAVIDSON: I use the phrase innate basic goodness to refer to a propensity that shows up in very young children that reflects a preference for cooperative, altruistic, and warm-hearted interactions, rather than those that are selfish or aggressive. And there’s an abundant and growing corpus of hard-nosed scientific evidence that supports this.
EDUTOPIA: What is the research saying?
DAVIDSON: One study was done at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, where they presented a 6-month-old child with two scenarios using puppets. In the first one, a puppet is clearly trying to reach for a toy and is struggling to do it by himself. A second puppet comes over and helps him.
The second scenario looks exactly the same, with the same puppets, but this time the second puppet intentionally hinders the first puppet and makes it impossible for him to reach the toy. We take steps to make sure the puppets’ colors are randomized and counterbalanced so that color itself isn’t a factor. What the researchers found was that after the scenarios are run, if you show both puppets to the infant, the vast majority of them will reach for the puppet that was cooperative, not the puppet that was mean.
EDUTOPIA: And this has been replicated?
DAVIDSON: There are so many experiments that have been conducted by different scientists in different countries in the Western world, and the findings are very consistent. When kids are given an opportunity to express a preference, they will choose the prosocial alternative. That is consistent with this notion of innate basic goodness.
EDUTOPIA: You’d think there would be a biological drive to be more selfish, not less.
DAVIDSON: We know from research that engaging in acts of generosity activates circuits in the brain that we know to be involved in positive emotion, and one of the most powerful ways of activating that circuitry is through prosocial, generous behavior. This has been studied in the laboratory, though these findings are mostly in adults. For kids, we also know from other studies that when they are given the opportunity to be kind and generous to others, they feel happier than if they’re just engaged in activities for themselves.
EDUTOPIA: What are the implications of these findings for education?
DAVIDSON: We need to think about kindness, compassion, and other prosocial qualities in the same way we think about language. All human beings are born with an innate biological propensity for language, but we know that a biological propensity doesn’t mean that language just emerges in a vacuum. It needs to be nurtured. We know of case studies of feral children who are raised in the wild and don’t develop normal language. We can think of kindness and compassion in the same way. These are innate biological propensities that need to be cultivated and nurtured. Most importantly, there are many influences in the early child environment which play a role in either nurturing them or hindering them.
EDUTOPIA: Why did you design the Kindness Curriculum for kids between 4 and 6 years old?
DAVIDSON: There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that between the ages of 4 and 6 is a sensitive period of development regardless of where a child is in school. The biggest transition is the increase in self-regulatory capacities. The prefrontal cortex and the areas with which the prefrontal cortex is connected—and specifically the neural connections themselves—all begin to come online in a significant way for the first time, and you want to be able to introduce your curriculum at that very opportune time.
EDUTOPIA: You have said that middle school brains are in a similarly sensitive period of development. Are you designing interventions around kindness for this age group as well?
DAVIDSON: Our work on the Kindness Curriculum is focused on the preschool years. However, we have also examined related mindfulness-based approaches in middle school children. Our work and the work of other scientists has found that interventions to cultivate mindfulness and kindness in middle school children can be very effective and can lead to improvements on measures of attention, self-regulation, and prosocial behavior.
EDUTOPIA: What's going on in the middle school brain that makes interventions more effective at that point?
DAVIDSON: Middle school is at the front end of adolescence. The brain and body are reorganizing, and the child is becoming extremely sensitive to her or his peers, as anyone who is a parent can attest.
But this sensitivity exacts an extraordinary toll. Prior to adolescence, the incidence of symptoms of anxiety and depression is roughly equal between boys and girls. After adolescence, the ratio doubles so that the prevalence of these symptoms in girls is twice that in boys. And it’s not due to the boys dropping, it’s due to the girls increasing. This two-to-one ratio is preserved throughout adulthood and has been found to be present in every major Western country in which it’s been examined. And we know now that depression is the leading cause of morbidity worldwide.
EDUTOPIA: What is your approach with this age group?
DAVIDSON: We believe that it is possible, with the right kind of pre-adolescent intervention, to decrease that ratio as the kids transition through their teen years. We’ve been exploring a couple of different interventions in the middle school period. One avenue we’re looking at is embedding these ideas into a video game, since kids use these games a lot. I think we have a moral obligation to determine if games can be built that actually help kids rather than harm them.
EDUTOPIA: I want to take a step back and ask about all of these interventions more broadly: How does this work if a child comes from a chaotic or unstable home environment?
DAVIDSON: There is absolutely no doubt that addressing these issues at multiple levels is optimal. If the home environment is really stressful and chaotic, it’s going to dramatically undermine what we might do in the classroom. With the pre-K population, it would be ideal to have the parents or at least one parent involved in a parallel intervention while their child is also going through the Kindness Curriculum.
EDUTOPIA: Are you working on a program for parents?
DAVIDSON: Here in Madison we’re piloting the Mindfulness-Based Parenting Program to support parents at the Head Start center. We make it a point to have it there because they’re already accustomed to going to the center, rather than having them come on campus. We’re still in the very early stages of this, but we’ve run several groups with parents and clearly there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that kids benefit when their parents practice mindfulness. Exactly how this kind of thing can be scaled in the future is a big challenge, though. One of the strategies we’re actively pursuing is a mobile digital platform. There are certainly limitations with mobile digital, but the advantage is being able to disseminate our work at scale. Many people who have very low incomes and are subject to a lot of adversity have smartphones, so we can potentially harness that and make this kind of training more widely available.
Research tells us that social and emotional skills trump the more traditional cognitive measures—like IQ, standardized test scores, and GPAs—in predicting major life outcomes when the individuals are in their early adult years. So this work is extremely important.