Thursday, April 09, 2015

What Makes a Hero? by Elizabeth Svoboda


I started What Makes a Hero?:  The Surprising Science of Selflessness thinking it would be psychological studies of people who have committed heroic acts.  There is some of that but Elizabeth Svoboda took a much broader view of heroism.  There are vignettes about people who have done phenomenal acts for others but there are also stories about organizations dedicated to cultivating altruism in everyone.  Svoboda participates firsthand with scientists who are using MRI technology to map the parts of the brain that process compassion.  She takes a course on meditation and mindfulness.  She attends a meeting of "real-life superheroes" - people who dress up in costumes and either try to break up crimes in action or simply give supplies to homeless people.  She even gathers supplies and goes to San Francisco to give care packages to the homeless herself (while 30 weeks pregnant no less).

You may be able to tell that this is not dispassionate journalism.  Svoboda is very much involved in her story and she is not shy about that.  She very ably reports on all manner of studies about altruism, heroism, and compassion but every so often she takes a step back and details her own feelings or questions.  She wonders, along with the reader, if what these researchers and teachers are trying to do can really change how people behave.  Each chapter almost reads like its own news article but one chapter to the next does build on the lessons and information gleaned prior.  So, even if you just open the book to find the bits that tug at the heartstrings (acts of heroic selflessness, children standing up for bullied classmates) or you are looking to be inspired into different techniques for increasing your empathy, there is a lot here for any would-be hero.

If you like this book, you might enjoy The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, who is featured in What Makes a Hero? both of which are available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

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