What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. Among other symptoms, he became a chronic insomniac and lost his sex drive; he started forgetting things and had trouble focusing; his movements slowed. And, his neurologist says, he became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy. (João died of kidney failure in 1999. His doctor provided only his first name, to protect the family’s privacy.)
The history of neuroscience is littered with patients whose behavior changed in bizarre ways after they suffered brain damage. Some people could no longer recognize animals, or couldn’t speak but could still sing. For neuroscientists, these cases offer opportunities: by studying how people’s behaviors change after brain injuries, they gain insight into what role the injured areas play in everyday tasks. And so it was with João—researchers hoped that his compulsive giving could shed light on normal generosity, helping them understand why human beings give and why, biologically, giving feels good.
This work does raise uncomfortable questions, though. We normally think of generosity as pure and noble—evidence of the soul, not evidence of brain damage. But what if giving is largely a reflex or an instinct or even, sometimes, a sign of mental derangement? We also think of generosity as uniquely human. If other species evolved to be generous too, does that devalue the trait?
These aren’t idle questions. João’s case shows that generosity isn’t part of some ethereal “human spirit”—it’s hardwired into our brains. And while acts of generosity do engage our “higher” brain regions—the areas responsible for rational thought—they cause equally strong activity in the animalistic pleasure centers, circuits normally associated with food, sex, and drugs like cocaine.
Read “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving” at The Atlantic