Archive for August, 2010

Happiness: A Theory — The Unreliable Narrator

August 12, 2010

The world of fiction includes works where, over time, the reader receives clues that the story is being told by someone who, in one manner or another, has warped the delivery of information. 

Chris Frith, in describing how vision works, analogizes to engineering, in which a model is created, with certain errors, it is put out into the world, and the world provides feedback to allow the model to be changed.  Our perceptions work the same way, he says, although our brains tell us the opposite: that perception is the reception of data from outside world, which we then process.  See Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast #57.

Although the brain thereby participates in a feedback loop, allowing perceptions to be refined, there appears to have been little evolutionary percentage in perceiving the loop itself.  As a consequence, we run the risk of taking our perceptions at face value, like courtroom witnesses who testify to strikingly different accounts of the same event.  Is it possible that we evolved certain deceptive mechanisms to compensate for the increased brain size and the trouble that too much knowledge might cause? 

We crave, we need, the social interaction.  Babies die without it, prisoners in solitary confinement are known to commit suicide.  And so, we often take the feedback we receive from our fellow humans as truth.  Once we recognize the inherent error in our mode of perception, however, we may influence our well being by placing less stock in our initial reaction to our milieu, the cultural norms around us, the physical world, and the like. 

It appears that we are, indeed, unreliable narrators of our own lives.  Like a well-told tale, though, there is beauty in the deviation.  Happiness may come, in no small degree, when we drop our insistence on getting the story straight.

Happiness: A Theory — Talking Things Through

August 10, 2010

If, as current research on the brain suggests, talking about things may have as much to do with restoring serotonin levels as anything else, an urge to discuss the status of a relationship may be a chemically-induced reaction, and the disinclination to talk may be the sign of an intact sense of well being.  If so, then there may be little if any moral dimension to reticence, and volubility may represent the equivalent of the family pet digging into its bowl. 

A reticent partner may emerge from an interaction feeling somehow responsible for whatever in a relationship is “broken”, while the voluble one may come out with the hazy feeling of being right without clarity as to exactly how this is so.   Because the conscious brain ascribes meaning to behavior to which it attends, while lacking the biochemical information that might best account for it, the risk of confabulation is high.

Our happiness may depend in part on a willingness to reject whatever mythology arises around certain social behavior, to recognize that, although we often have limited access to the impetus for our conduct, we may be hypnotized by our transcendence.  The random-access, multivariable character of conscious thought helps us feel responsible for whatever just happened, even though “we” may have had nothing to do with it.

Happiness: A Theory — Being Wired for Belief (or Not)

August 4, 2010

One of the more interesting ideas in neuroscience suggests that there are some of us who are simply wired for skepticism, others, for belief. It stands to reason that a mix of the types makes for a stronger overall culture. If so, the notion that exposure to critical thinking enhances the self-doubt of one who is inclined toward belief may be unduly optimistic. If one is wired for skepticism, one intuitively sees the fit between this mindset and the limits of our ability to know. If one is wired for belief, however, is it any less intuitive to perceive the fit between that mindset and the elegant architecture of a belief? There certainly appear to be so-called critical thinkers who are just as chained to their comfort zones as any faith-oriented folks they may wish to ridicule. The cultivation of an open mind is no simple task.

Steadfast belief is a strength, no less so than healthy skepticism.  These two attitudes appear to be constituents of our evolutionary glue, no less so because we misapply them.  We doubt in the face of profound evidence, and we believe fervently in, among other things, disbelief.  But just having such neural pathways may allow humans, as a group, to stumble upon a workable perception, then cobble together a culture to support it. 

It is when we tease out one attitude or the other and attempt to superimpose it on the universe that we get into trouble.  The feeling of knowing appears to be an emotion, which may or may not correspond to a rational deduction based on testable evidence.  What some of us term a spiritual experience might be nothing more than stimulation of the feeling of knowing without accompanying content, so that we fill the empty container with whatever cosmology is rattling around in our personal tin cup.  See On Being Certain, by Robert Burton, one of the very best tomes to emerge from the current study of the brain.  When we criticize our neighbors for the contents of their cup, we may be doing little more than succumbing to another dab of evolutionary glue: the addicting notion that our “in” group trumps someone else’s “out” group.

Recognizing that neither belief, nor skepticism, in themselves, warrant judgment (in the form of belief, or skepticism), is an important step in cultivating happiness.

Happiness: A Theory — The Probabilistic Machine

August 3, 2010

                    If our essential functionality is probabilistic – any of an infinite number of synaptic connections may lead to one event or another within us – then our happiness must, in some measure, accommodate this chance-based essence.

                     We analogize to computers in conceiving of the brain, but, so far, this is a poor analogy.  We demand consistency from our computers, and, under ideal circumstances, consistency is what we get.  We never get consistency from our brains.  Rather, we get a constantly shifting array of possible outcomes, which helps us contend with a constantly shifting array of stimuli. 

                     Our greatest drawback is also our greatest talent.  By being so unpredictable, we are attuned to an unpredictable milieu.  The emergent behavior is so hard to copy, it is derived from such complexity and chance, that it is a root frustration of robot scientists who seek to duplicate humans.  But it also means that feeling happy, feeling attuned to our own essence, is highly unlikely to be, in its essence, consistent.

                     Our happiness may, in some measure, depend upon appreciation of whatever happens, because, no less daunting than our incapacity to govern our milieu is our incapacity to govern ourselves.  We are, very much, passengers, spectators, possessed of a well-honed delusion as to our powers.

                    “The brain is like a Ferrari – pedigreed and difficult to keep balanced.”  –  Louis Cozolino

Happiness: A Theory — Chasing an Illusion

August 2, 2010

Is happiness something that is achieved after struggle (cause and effect), or is it a way of being, all the time?

Are we hamstrung in our understanding of happiness by viewing it in cause-and-effect terms?  Think about lying out looking at stars on a summer evening.  That feeling of well-being, does it have anything to do with cause and effect?

In our ruminations about larger questions, we conceive of the universe in terms of cause and effect; but is that paradigm misplaced?  Why is it any more pertinent to ask what caused the universe than to ask how may it be that the universe has no cause?  Perhaps cause and effect is merely a mode of intermediate understanding, pertinent to our milieu, but inadequate at a higher level.  Perhaps because we are mimetic in our grasp of things, we demand that the universe we seek to fathom imitate – or correspond to — our primitive mode of comprehension.  The same restlessness that serves us so well in fathoming our immediate world becomes a means of unsettling rumination when applied to this larger question.  And, perhaps, a similar confusion affects our perception of our own well being. 

Certain properties of the universe, like consciousness, may exist only insofar as they emerge from constituents, that, viewed alone, offer no hint of their consequence.

Animate life , like an action film, often comes down to a chase.  In the case of our happiness, though, there may be nothing there to catch.