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What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness

Overview

Recent breakthroughs in biology and neuroscience reveal that the human brain is primed for selflessness. But how do biology, upbringing, and outside influences intersect to produce altruistic and heroic behavior? And how can we encourage selflessness in corporations, classrooms, and individuals? 

Using dozens of fascinating real-life examples, science journalist Elizabeth Svoboda explains how our genes compel us to do good ...

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What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness

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Overview

Recent breakthroughs in biology and neuroscience reveal that the human brain is primed for selflessness. But how do biology, upbringing, and outside influences intersect to produce altruistic and heroic behavior? And how can we encourage selflessness in corporations, classrooms, and individuals? 

Using dozens of fascinating real-life examples, science journalist Elizabeth Svoboda explains how our genes compel us to do good for others, how going through suffering is linked to altruism, and how acting generously can greatly improve our mental health.

Svoboda argues that it’s a common misconception that heroes are innately destined to be that way. In fact, anyone can be a hero if they’re committed to developing their heroic potential.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“Can you—can any ordinary person—learn to build on your natural biological endowments to turn yourself into a model of selflessness and service to others?” Svoboda’s question is straightforward, but the path to an answer winds from evolutionary biology and neuroscience to educational philosophy and psychology via anecdote and personal reflection. But while the journo makes some interesting points, there is nothing particularly new here. She summarizes the basic evolutionary explanation for altruism and describes some of the classic relevant neuroscience work; her two main points are that a selfless attitude can be cultivated through practice, and that learning about evil and kindness can prepare people to act heroically when opportunities present themselves. However, Svoboda presents little hard data to support her position, relying instead on anecdotes, interpretations of past studies, and personal experiences, such as having an MRI scan, attending a “Real Life Superheroes” gathering in New York City, and handing out small care packages to homeless people in San Francisco. (Purple prose doesn’t help, either: “Offered a meager gift and a little kindness, people the world had written off as hopeless opened up the way parched blooms do after a few drops of rain.”) Agent: Joe Veltre, Gersh Agency. (Aug. 29)
Kirkus Reviews
A personal quest to become more mindful takes science writer Svoboda on a search for outstanding examples of heroism and how they relate to altruism. The author chronicles her interview with psychologist Philip Zimbardo, architect of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which showed how ordinary students could be induced to become sadistic under certain circumstances. Now emeritus, he is investigating how ordinary people become heroes--and not only soldiers and firefighters. Svoboda notes former sky-diving instructor Dave Hartsock. During a sky dive with a passenger, her parachute malfunctioned, and he made a split-second decision to risk almost certain death by using his body to shield her. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Hartsock (now a lifestyle coach) says that he gets great satisfaction from his choice. He believes that such sacrifices may correlate to a lifestyle commitment to service. Svoboda also examines a five-year longevity study of older volunteers who showed a 60 percent reduction in the death rate of individuals regularly involved in charitable activities. She cites behavioral economist Paul Zak, whose research establishes an association between the pleasurable release of oxytocin and empathic moral behavior in general. The author visited laboratories where neuroscientists are using brain scans in an attempt to pinpoint what happens in the brain when people contemplate making sacrifices to help others. She participated in an experiment that showed a reward center in her brain lighting up when she imagined making charitable decisions. A visit to a charter high school introduced her to a pilot program developed by Zimbardo to train students to become "every-day heroes" by examining their values. Ordinary acts of goodwill are pleasurable and "enhance our ability to step up" should the need arise for "the kind of heroic choice that involves a high level of personal sacrifice." A satisfying investigation of the mechanics of heroism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591845287
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/29/2013
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 814,257
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.14 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Svoboda has contributed to Fast Company, Popular Science, Psychology TodayDiscover, Salon, and The New York Times, among others. In 2008, she received the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award. She lives in San Jose.

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