The Price of Our Souls

There's a belief among the more cynical of us that everything has a price, that humans can be induced to sell-out or change our supposedly most sacred and enduring values under the right circumstances or for the right price.

As many of us have long-known, this isn't at all true. There are indeed values much more important than money, social acceptance, or even our lives. This is part of the bliss hypothesis: bliss is where happiness, meaning, and truth converge. And there is an objective reality to these things. But it's an immensely difficult thing to prove.

Until now.

There's a tantalizing new scientific study just announced (for a easier-to-understand description, read here) that gives some concrete evidence for this. It turns out that our sacred values--those things we firmly know to be true and around which we construct our lives--cannot be compromised so easily. These values are processed in an entirely different region of the brain than the things that we are willing to compromise. Basically, there is one part of the brain that processes our risks vs. rewards evaluations but an entirely other region where we store and process those things that we believe so firmly and deeply that we won't subject them to this kind of cost-benefit analysis.

Put in the language of economics: there is a certain belief that is rather rampant at the moment that all of human life and values can be reduced to incentives. Give people the incentives (often monetary) to behave a certain way and they'll do so, regardless of what they profess to believe or value. But it turns out that this is only true for comparatively lesser things, those to which we don't assign sacred importance. Sacred values are processed in a different brain system than where we process incentives.

While this finding is no surprise to spiritual practitioners, it's an important course correction for those sociologists, economists, psychiatrists, scientists, and philosophers who champion the claim that there is no enduring meaning or truth and no real difference between the sacred and the profane and that in essence, everything we do, think, and believe can be manipulated by changing the external rewards we're offered.

Not everything is reducible in such a way, we're far more complex and interesting beings than that. And the realm of the sacred is just that: a very different system, process, world-view, and experience from the mundane, one far more enduring and profound.