‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

John Donne (1623), Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII


Service implies a wider view of the world. A narrow view is one confined to our own circle, centred on ourselves; as we grow, we realise as John Donne did that nobody lives in a world of their own apart from the rest of society, but we are part of a living, changing whole. Donne used a geographic metaphor, but we might use a biological one; we are like the cells in a body; if a part of the body becomes sick, then we will all suffer. Service is our way of ensuring the health of the whole body. 

In schools we see service in so many guises: teachers who are dedicated to their students and colleagues, who give up their own time to help others (nowhere better illustrated than in the lives of our dear friends Mark Williams and Gordon Wilson); students who readily give their time and effort in the service of their fellow students, for the community, as we can see in these pages. But we also see examples of self-centredness, where individuals often cannot see beyond themselves. Sometimes in the school service has to be mandated, as the parents of any teenager who has had to be dragged out of bed to help out in the school’s Red Shield Calling programme can attest. Why is this so? Why do some embrace service while others do not? 

For many years the failing was seen as largely a moral one: a person did not have the moral fibre to overcome their innate selfishness. However, as advances in science have allowed us greater insight into how the brain works, we have discovered that there is often a biological reason for some of these behaviours. 

The game-changer was the development of the fMRI. A MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) – that giant medical machine where a patient lies down while a scanner circles them – measures, among other things, blood flow. In the brain, increases in blood flow is a sign of greater activity in a particular part of the brain, so scientists can identify what parts of the brain are being used. With the fMRI, that ability is taken one step further: a person’s brain can be studied while they are doing an activity (that’s the f in fMRI: functional). 

This means that researchers can look inside a person’s brain while they are thinking through a particular problem or completing a certain task and see the changes, the ebbs and flows, as they perform a task or think through a type of problem. Now with much greater accuracy, we can identify the areas of the brain responsible for particular emotions, attitudes and developmental stages.

There needs to be a caveat in fMRI studies: they are still reasonably new, often have small numbers of participants and can give divergent results – all a sign that much more of the brain remains unknown than known. However, they can give us some insight into what is going on in the brain, especially that most mysterious object: the teenage brain. 

In one set of experiments, subjects were told they were working with a partner. The partner was given an amount of money and could either share it equally or give all of it to the subject. If they shared it equally, that was the end of the game, but if they gave it all away, the amount would be increased, and the game would go on for another round. But in round 2, the subject could choose to share the money, or keep it all for themselves. 

Participants were told that the partner had decided to give them all the money in round 1. What would the subjects do – share with the partner or keep the pot for themselves? Scientists observed a fairly evenly split between those who behaved altruistically and those who acted selfishly. But when they sorted the participants by age, they found that the younger teenagers were significantly more selfish in their behaviour. The fMRI showed much activity in the medial frontal cortex of the brain, but the selfish areas were firing most strongly in the younger age group. What was going on? 

This indicates that there is a biological reason for the self-centeredness we often encounter in children and younger teenagers. The parts of their brain that are important for helping to shift attention from the self to others; the temporoparietal junction (the meeting place of the temporal lobe – just above your ear – and parietal lobe – toward the back of your head) is simply not well-developed in younger people. Perhaps the origins of this lie in our prehistoric ancestors, roaming the plains and avoiding predation, with the highest priority being self-survival; only later does the care for others become a priority. What should we make of all this? 

First, we should not be surprised that children and adolescents can often be self-centred: their brains are hard-wired that way, and the altruistic parts of their brains simply aren’t that well developed – yet. This doesn’t mean that they get a free pass and are allowed unbridled self-centredness, but that they need help, prompting, pushing and encouragement to help them develop those parts of their brains. Service might not come naturally, and as parents, a school and community we need to offer them chances to experience the benefits of service, and make this a part of their life. 

It also means that parents of grumpy, sullen teenagers shouldn’t despair. The teenager is a work in progress, who never cease to surprise us as they grow and develop into often very wonderful young men