Archive for July, 2010

Happiness: A Theory — The Beauty (and Problems) of Science

July 31, 2010

What we think will make us happy is not what will actually make us happy.  So goes a key revelation of the brain science renaissance.  As higher-order mammals, we not only develop ideas about what to do, we also carry within us a meta-notion that these ideas are good ones.

The problem, however, is that our perception that we are on the right path lends nothing to the integrity of our view.  To the contrary, human history is replete with the poisonous residue of proclivity.  Like King Procrustes, when it comes to a treasured idea, we often prefer to cut off the feet of our guest than to acquire a larger bed.

The beauty of science is that it incorporates an algorithm of self-doubt.  No sooner does a hypothesis arise than, under the scientific method, it is subjected to testing.  The testing process, if done with quality and integrity, attempts to disprove the hypothesis.  Whatever emerges from this treatment may legitimately be termed a going hypothesis – i.e., something we do not know, but that we have not yet shown to be false.  Such is the pinnacle of human “knowing”.

The problem of science is that it is conducted by humans, who often think they are right when they are wrong, so that their foibles contaminate their conclusions.   Properly pursued, however, the scientific method seems to be the best means we have to discern what is, as opposed to what we think should be.

A second problem of science is that, like so many other facets of our lives, we tend to ascribe to it a magical significance, as part of neuronal circuitry that chirps, open-beaked and red-throated, for a cosmological parent.  It seems, nonetheless, to be the best game in town, as we (most of us) happily concede when we are truly ill.  We go, with misgivings perhaps, but we go, to that repository of the scientific method’s achievements, the hospital.

Happiness: A Theory — The Gift of Listening

July 30, 2010

Another component of a personal theory of happiness may be the willingness to listen. It seems that we all share a craving to be heard, to have others receive our story. Phenomena such as this blog are an illustration of this craving, I believe. Michael Nichols observes: “The reason we care so much about being listened to is that we never outgrow our need to communicate what it feels like to live in our separate, private worlds of experience. Unfortunately, there is no parallel need to be the one who listens. Maybe that’s why listening sometimes seems to be in short supply. Listening isn’t a need we have; it’s a gift we give.”

I submit that when we fathom the lesson of Nichol’s excellent work, The Lost Art of Listening, and we seek to give that gift, we enrich our lives, and, hence, our sense of well being.

Happiness: A Theory — On Judging and Being Judged

July 29, 2010

No one likes to be judged, yet, it often seems, the impulse to judge runs strong within us.

The desire for the good opinion of our peers may be more fundamental than the quest to adhere to an absolute.  But we are unlikely to put it to ourselves in this way.  It seems we are more likely to say: I believe in such and such principle, and that is why I blah blah blah.  If we monitor our own behavior closely, however, we may soon find that any given principle has little to do with it.  Can we teach ourselves to not mind when others think ill of us?  If we strive to present a truer picture of ourselves to others, might we not improve our standing, through candor, and, so, ironically, lessen the sting of judgment?

What sort of potential for happiness is there in a world in which we care deeply about how we are perceived, yet we are possessed of an abiding urge to judge everyone else (and not so as to increase their esteem)?  We seem to like it when our relative standing is above that of our peers.  The stage is set for: 1) diminishing others through judgment; 2) deceiving ourselves into viewing others as inferior; 3) some combination of 1 and 2.   In such a milieu, there should be a good number of us who correctly, and, unhappily, perceive ourselves as being judged.  Note, though, that, if we consider the bias and diminished capacity of those doing the judging, we may discover good reason for giving their judgment short shrift, even if we have difficulty transcending our aversion to being judged.  

One possible solution for us, in all the above examples, and perhaps many others, is to see those around us who pursue their own biology as doing no more and no less than that; seeing that they are not our enemies, and that we need not change them; seeing, rather, that the pursuit of happiness involves changing our own perception of the situation, rather than our milieu.  Such a project is arduous; if our own biology acts like a spring on a screen door, we must train ourselves to hold the door open, to perhaps come closer to seeing things as they are.  We can recognize the behavior of others that might displease us as behavior we ourselves exhibit, to one degree or another; behavior with strong evolutionary origins; and we can use this insight to fuel our resolve to do something different.  It may not be easy, but it seems that it is possible, to transcend our biology in this manner, and, hence, to avoid the blues.

Happiness: A Theory — Gate Crashing

July 28, 2010
If the universe doesn’t care that we are here, yet we are sufficiently sapient to meditate on the question, then the door is open for inflated self-importance, or metaphysical angst over our supposed abandonment.  The very mirror neurons that allow us to posit selves in others appear easily susceptible to recruitment for creative notions about what other, larger self or selves there might be.

In the world of mental health, there is much to be said for valuing oneself, without regard to any supposed lack of love from any anticipated quarter.  A healthy narcissism breeds, among other things, an enhanced possibility of finding desired companionship.  Put differently, we are more likely to be attracted to those who portray themselves as worthy of attraction.  Recognizing that we deserve love whether or not there is sufficient supply appears to be an important ingredient of happiness.

Similarly, if we just happen to be here, it seems possible that we may transcend our inclination to grieve over our orphan status, and, instead, view ourselves as party crashers, uninvited guests, sampling what is before us with the relish of those who appreciate their good fortune, and are determined to make the best of it.

The evidence suggests that we may, indeed, be in such a position.  There is beauty in things that just happen to happen.   If we view our own lives as unfolding works of art, refrain from insisting on how the works unfold, and strive to appreciate what happens next, we may increase our happiness.

Happiness: A Theory — The God Question

July 28, 2010


We conceive of the universe as having a beginning, hence, a moment of birth, or creation.  Such a scenario implies a creator.  But we may think in terms of cause and effect, beginnings, because that is our milieu.  Our brains evolved in an environment steeped in birth, in beginnings.  The concept of something eternal is simply not part of our thought process.  We may posit a deity to set the universe in motion, but what about a universe that has always been here?  Why can’t that be true, without a prime mover?  If we insist on perceiving an original moment of creation, we merely perpetuate the conundrum: if creation is the way all things begin, how was god created?  If god is an exception, why can’t the universe be an exception?

Consider how many different competing conceptions of how the world began are to be found in the religions of the world.  Consider how fervently adherents to these faiths propound their particular creation stories, and all the other precepts.  Yet, how testable are these beliefs?  One thing can be known: insofar as they each claim their own exclusively true account of how the world began, they must all be wrong, with the possible exception of one.  If we select just one of these stories and claim it to be the one true account, how likely are we to be correct?

All of this should leave us with one abiding perception:  when it comes to matters of god and our metaphysical plight, we should be humble.  We may feel as though we we know, but we should not claim to know.   This humility should not be so difficult to come by, for the simple reason that we do not know.  Being brought up to believe one story or another is not knowing; it is simply the belief that we know.

There is something else.  There is a kind of metaphysical bravery in accepting that we, ourselves, may be the ultimate arbiters of our own lives.

Happiness: A Theory — On Being Open

July 24, 2010
Our brains appear wired to adopt a belief about our milieu, consecrate it, then bar the door to our consciousness against any competing belief.  If a different belief gets past our mental bouncer, the result is conflict, sometimes labeled cognitive dissonance.  This process should be familiar to most of us, yet how likely is it to reflect some objective quality of our universe?  The transcendent achievements of our brains help to blind us to their concomitant evolved limitations.  There appears to be little circuitry in the brain encouraging it to adopt a critical posture towards itself. 

There is, so to speak, a pantry full of ingredients, and a universe of possible recipes, tucked into this convoluted organ and the larger organism it serves.  Much as a solitary person may infrequently feel the urge to cook, however, we seem inclined to ignore the culinary opportunities. 

Perhaps in questioning the integrity of our thinking, we may take a seat at one of life’s great feasts.   If we cultivate within ourselves the capacity to hold two competing beliefs, simultaneously, we may proceed from there to a perhaps unlimited gathering of data and ideas within us, resisting the persistent impulse to clear the room of intruders.  The very moment we feel the zing of eureka — that we have figured something out, and we would banish the inconsistent data and perceptions — we may do well to resist this deportation.  The process of keeping our minds open – familiar to our tongues but rarely to our hearts – may require an ease with dissonance.  Our brains appear to crave certainty, solidity.  The question arises: can we rewire our reward circuitry to appreciate uncertainty, fluidity?  What if your enemy can teach you something that would change your life?  What if you wander down an aisle in the bookstore and select something you might never see?  Might there be an idea out there to complement your treasured hypotheses, but your brain’s bouncer leaves it shivering on the sidewalk? 

Recent neuroscience is littered with accounts of compensatory perceptual achievements in the face of lost functionality.  See, for instance, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor.  It stands to reason that our neuroplastic brain can adapt to see things, including ideas about our milieu, in new ways.  Is there a meditation that would assist our brain to get out of its own way?  Knowledge is knowing that we cannot know, said Emerson.  In that simple phrase may lie a mantra which, if we utter it daily, may help us not only to keep our minds open, but to find doing so a pleasure.

Happiness: A Theory — Platonic Cavewall Scribbling

July 24, 2010
There is a fair amount of evidence that what we call happiness is simply a feature of our biology that promotes replication. To accept that key aspects of ourselves have arisen from their role in replication is nothing more than recognizing that what is alive and here probably has a long track record of successful replications, and probably has pruned out features that tend in some other direction. With our expanded cortex, we cannot resist ascribing other meanings to happiness and many other mental and physical states and concepts. The tendency of our multivariable, pancerebral neuronal modules to ascribe meaning may, on some level, be little different than a kind of platonic cave wall scribbling. A confabulation. But, if so, what a piece of artistry it is! What a piece of work is man, says a cynical Hamlet. To pursue happiness, viewed in this light, is to grab onto something pleasurable and divert it to our own purpose, not unlike a settler tapping into a western stream. What Hamlet briefly forgot, and what we all may seek to remember, is that one of the routes we may go in this diversion is to contemplate the evidence, gaze upon this cranial vernissage, and never stop marvelling at our good fortune that we are here, past the guard, with an inexhaustible treasure of master works before us.


Happiness: A Theory — Thomas Metzinger and One Kind of Not Knowing

July 24, 2010

Can we cure what ails us merely by fathoming the nature of consciousness?

If one means of transcending a low mood is to reflect on our incapacity to reliably perceive what we imagine to be the source of our pain, it may help to consider an example of the gap between our perceptions and the vastly richer world to which they attend. In his work, The Ego Tunnel, philosopher and scientist Thomas Metzinger provides us with a clue.

Our awareness of ourselves as having a perception does not include the process of constructing the perception itself. The level at which our mind constructs a model that is then treated by our mind as reality (rather than its more accurate status as a limited model of reality) is “transparent”, says Metzinger. By transparent, he means, our minds don’t even consider the artifice that led to the model.

There is simply no payback for the caloric expenditure that such an awareness would entail, he suggests. Beyond the model itself, we would treat ourselves to a kind of internal Tower of Babel, which, in turn, might capture our attention in ways inimical to survival. “You would lose yourself in the myriad of micro-events taking place in your brain at every millisecond — you would get lost inside yourself.”

There may be evidence that such a meta-awareness plagued at least one of our human cousins. In their book, Big Brain, Gary Lynch and Richard Granger speculate that Boskop man, whose 10,000-year-old remains have been found in southern Africa, with a cortex possibly 30 percent greater than our own, had a vivid internal life, with staggering memory retrieval. Might this fellow have had access to the construction of his perceptions? And, if so, did he become lost in that world, so much so, that only the bones remain?

Speculations — and evidence — of this sort may help to remind us that we do not “know” that something is wrong; and, in this case, not knowing may be something we can feel good about.

Happiness: A Theory — Jaak Panksepp and the Seeking System.

July 24, 2010
 A great deal of commentary on happiness uses the language of reward, dopamine error readings, and the like.  A more helpful vocabulary may be provided by Jaak Panksepp, Phd, who has spent the better part of his professional life researching the origins of human emotion, providing strong evidence that emotion comes not from the neocortex, but, rather from regions in the brain far earlier in our evolution, suggesting that our sense of well being may be shared with lesser mammals and nonmammals.  He describes a neural highway common to all emotions (characterized by self-contained circuitry that, when stimulated, triggers the expected display), and applies the term “seeking system.”  This is the state in which an animal sniffs and roots around, telling itself, I’m alive, I’m alert, I’m looking for something, and I have the ability to find it – i.e., precisely what higher order animate life requires for survival.  When, in the laboratory, the nutritional needs of an animal are met, for instance, and the seeking impulse is stimulated, the animal gnaws on wood, bites itself or eats its own feces, as the biological need for food isn’t present, and the activated impulse has no coherence.  

In humans, it stands to reason, when we fail to seek to live, in no small measure because our culture allows our needs to be met passively, we diminish our own happiness. 

See Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast.


Happiness: A Theory — First Principles

July 24, 2010

1.  Eye demonstration.  Close one eye; gently poke side of open eye.  Point:  Eyes are not merely a window to the truth; they are showing a creation of the mind.  The metaphor of Buddhism – seeing as a path to understanding, rather than believing, itself can be qualified on this basis.  To improve our understanding, we must be willing to distrust our beliefs.

2.   Years ago, Plato described Socrates’s metaphor of the cave, in which people were chained in place, with fixed gaze, observing shadows on a wall cast by unseen puppeteers.  His point was: we might be in that position and not know it.

3.  There are many hints provided by science that we are, indeed, shown a play, told a story, immersed in a creation of our minds.  If so, what role does happiness play, and what chance do we have of improving its role in our lives?

4.  The first premise of a theory of happiness is that we improve our chances by affirmatively seeking to understand.  By not becoming tired, satisfied, or complacent.  This is an inquiry that does not involve a competition for resources.  We all have the power to improve our understanding and improve our lives.  But we must keep asking questions.

5.  The second premise  is that every one of us has a personality, a personal make up that influences in some degree or other our relationship with happiness.  For this reason, we must each develop our own theory of happiness, figure out what it might look like, and then test it, continuously, throughout our lives.

6.  A third premise, perhaps most important, is that the mere fact that we have tried and failed in so many areas so many times tells us nothing.  It is the spirit of inquiry that matters.  This spirit includes awareness of our inclination toward discouragement.  If we keep doing exactly the same thing and expect a different consequence, perhaps we should be discouraged.  But if we preserve a spirit of inquiry, this spirit itself is quite directly connected to, and a harbinger of, happiness.  The spirit of inquiry requires self-doubt – not a lack of self-esteem; but, rather, the recognition that all of our understanding is provisional, and all of our understanding is susceptible to improvement.

7.  One reason the human brain is the marvel that it is arises from its plasticity.  It adapts to adversity, change in circumstances, and it relentlessly intuits its environs.  As people, we too have the potential for plasticity.  That is a compliment.  But it is not a well-deserved one unless we are brave enough to keep our minds open.