An ancient Jewish proverb states that A good deed causes more good deeds, and a bad deed causes more bad deeds (Talmud, Tractate Avot 4:2). This statement, quoted in the name of the second-century sage known simply as Ben-Azzai[i], is somewhat oblique and difficult to understand. Why would this rule be true? Why should your decision to do a good deed now, result in more good deeds in the future? Doesn’t each decision occur on its own merit, based on the factors that present at each instance? As we will see, however, this Jewish proverb from nearly 2,000 years ago is correct and it is consistent with discoveries of modern neuroscience.
The Jewish belief about how the world works is gleaned from the Torah; one’s future is not determined by destiny, but rather is a function of free will. Choices of how you think and act are in your control. While freedom of choice seems self-evident from reflection on the course of daily life, the dynamic stated by Ben-Azzai of good deeds leading to more good deeds is not intuitive.
So, let’s explore the Ben-Azzai concept and see how it relates to how the brain works.
In the last two blog posts in this series, I introduced the idea of neuroplasticity. As opposed to what used to be thought, we now know that the brain can change in several ways. The brain can grow new cells, it can adapt the strength of connections between nerve cells, and it can change the efficiency and speed of transmission as the nerve signals travel from one brain area to another. The common theme that has been discovered in many brain systems is one of adaptation in favor of use. That is, the more you use a certain brain circuit, the more efficient it becomes. That efficiency is reflected in mental effort – how easily you adopt a thought or perform an action.
When you first start learning a new skill, it is very hard to focus on all the things you need to do. For example, learning to play the piano is complex – it requires learning a system of musical notation, as well as operation of a tool that has 88 keys that must be pressed in precise sequences. At first, it is quite effortful and the result sounds clumsy. With practice, understanding of the music dynamics, reading notation, and the manual coordination become less effortful and result in beautiful music.
How does this “learning” happen? You are not born with proficiency in piano playing. Your brain must be trained, both to think musically and to coordinate the motor control necessary for playing the instrument. The reason that a learned skill becomes easier even though the demands are more complex, is that your brain changes in ways that facilitate the brain circuits that underlie control of that skill. When you learn how to play a piano, certain groups of specialized nerve cells must fire together so that the muscles in the hands will receive the right commands at the right time.
Like a motor skill, thought patterns are also mediated by specialized nerve cells that fire together. When you are faced with a choice of whether or not to help someone in need, many areas of your brain activate to think about your decision – long before you actually activate your muscles that execute the act. The point of the decision is critical, and that is when your moral challenge happens. The part of your brain that makes the decision must weigh the moral thoughts, both in favor and against offering help. The first time that you overcome your selfish desire to help the other person is the most difficult. But, after practicing kindness and giving charity, the decision becomes easier and the acts less effortful.
Ben-Azzai’s principle is right. Ben-Azzai’s full statement starts with a strange recommendation. He says that “You should run as fast to do a relatively unimportant good deed as you would to do an important one.“ That is, the critical factor is not the importance of the outcome, but the effort that you make. Whether he knew it or not, Ben-Azzai was encouraging people to train their brains to make the right moral decisions. In that way, performance of a good deed leads to more good deeds. Due to changes in your brain that occur with practice, it becomes less effortful to reach the hard decisions that are often necessary when choosing to act morally.
Dr. Ely Simon is a neurologist working in Modiin, Israel and is the author of Embracing the Unknown: A Fresh Look at Nature and Science.
[i] Ben-Azzai’s full name was Shimon Ben-Azzai. He lived in Israel and was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva.