Human behavior is an enduring mystery to me, and often that includes my own behavior. After years of writing fiction, I realized that I explored the human mind and behavior through the writing, i.e. the characters I created. Therefore, always in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about character motivation that drives thought and behavior and wondering what drives the motivations. Character motivation provides the crucial momentum for any narrative, even nonfiction stories.
Last evening, I read a fascinating article in the May 2015 issue of The Atlantic about a man in Rio de Janeiro who “suffered” from pathological generosity. How can being generous be pathological? You’d be surprised. I was. This man had suffered a stroke that had damaged the part of his brain that restrained giving and set the part of his brain that governed generosity loose. At the same time, his neurologist discovered, giving triggered the release of dopamine and lit up the pleasure and rewards areas of his brain. The pleasure and happiness he felt when giving made it impossible for him to stop. So, did it then become an addiction? Can other things cause pathological generosity? It turns out “yes” to both those questions.
This morning, I started thinking about what kind of character would develop pathological generosity. The first one that comes to mind is Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He’s a candidate if ever there was one. But a character could become too generous through guilt in a different way — what if a thief had a life-changing experience that turned him around and made him into a modern day Robin Hood? Ben Thomas (Will Smith) in the movie Seven Pounds takes generosity to new heights as a result of the survivor’s guilt he feels. I guess what I’m reaching for here is that it’s not enough to say a character is pathologically generous. It’s important to show, in some way, the motivation behind it. According to The Atlantic article, a person simply doesn’t have pathological generosity. Something must have happened to the brain, or affected the brain like a drug or a mental illness, in order for the extreme of pathological generosity to occur. So that makes me wonder, is it truly impossible, or is there some way that humans can be programmed to be extremely generous with no expectations for getting something back?
We think of generosity as being a constructive trait. Generosity is a part of the glue that binds relationships and builds trust. It is an important element in human society. Combined with selflessness, it becomes the higher spiritual trait of altruism. How interesting would a character be who was totally selfless and generous? Would we trust that person or be suspicious of her? Don’t we expect some behavior control even for generosity? I’ve known people in my life who gave only when it benefited them in some way, not the recipients of their largesse. These people were still seen as doing good and being generous — it was like their opportunistic impulses were beside the point in the final reckoning. We see these people most often as villains in stories.
There is a destructive side to generosity. The article about the man in Rio illustrated how his generosity tore apart his marriage, his extended family, and he lost his job. Giving away to strangers what you need for yourself and your family would create problems for everyone. So, humans possess impulse control located in the frontal lobes of the brain. If those control areas have been damaged, as was true for the Brazilian man, there’s nothing stopping the generosity or telling the giver that he needs to take care of himself and his family first. When generosity develops into an addiction, i.e. being addicted to the
pleasure and happiness that giving produces — all that dopamine being released in the brain — that can become a very destructive force in a person’s life. So, it’s a good thing that we have frontal lobes exercising control over our behavior!
My frontal lobes have been working overtime and it has frustrated me, but the bottom line is that at this time I do not have the resources to exercise my usual generosity. I want to, but I am actually the one who is in need of generosity. It’s an uncomfortable position for me. Intellectually, I understand how I ended up in this position: health crisis with bills, unable to work, no savings. It could happen to anyone, but especially people in part-time jobs like me. And writers as well as other artists. It has been interesting, therefore, to observe my own behavior and responses lately — I’ve never thought of myself as poor or poverty-stricken, for example, and yet that’s where I am right now and I just cannot get my head around it — and the changes in my thinking that I’ve had to make in order to insure my own survival first. This is all grist for my creative mill, of course.
Shameless plug for GoFundMe Medical Expenses fundraising project: And finally, please allow me to remind readers that there’s a crowdsource funding project at GoFundMe that was set up by a friend to help me with my medical and related expenses. If you have already given, my deepest heartfelt thank you! If you haven’t yet and are able, please help. We are only $1490 away from making our goal! Click here to donate. If you don’t have the resources to give at this time, please tell others about the project and encourage them to give. THANK YOU!