Archive for September, 2010

Happiness: A Theory — Getting it Wrong about Others

September 26, 2010

Why do we get it wrong in ascribing motives to others?  Our brains seem prewired to guess at the mental states of others, and mirror neurons appear to play a role.  Without mirror neurons, we would be blind to the actions intentions and emotions of other people, says neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni.

Schizophrenic patients ascribe the voices they hear to third parties.  Autistic individuals have a hard time discerning the mental states of other people.   Dolphins may have an enhanced capacity to intuit the mental states of their peers, addressing a problem solved elsewhere through language acquisition.   Mirror neurons may play a role in language evolution and acquisition.  Mimesis seems to be part of our essence.  When we observe others perform an activity, we prime ourselves for like behavior.

The stage is set for getting it wrong on a massive scale.

Brains appear to need other brains to be what they are:  survival and social devices that moonlight as conduits for knowledge.  Brains don’t seem to become what they are until they engage in feedback loops, chief among them, interaction with others.  One difference between brains and computers is computational devices seem unable to care about what is going on.  Brains do care, enlisting emotional pathways that not only give impetus to thinking, they push our thoughts in directions skewed by assumptions like, these people think the way I do.

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Happiness: A Theory — Happiness and Music

September 20, 2010

What is the relationship between music and happiness?  Is music a construct within our brains, like colors?  What is going on when something good happens, and we celebrate by playing a favorite song?  What about when we are bittersweet, or upset? 

“Music appears to mimic some of the features of language and to convey some of the emotions that vocal communication does, but in a nonreferential and nonspecific way.  It also invokes some of the same neural regions that language does, but far more than language, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward and emotion,” says Dan Levitin, in his work, This is Your Brain on Music.

Humans and parrots appear to be among the few – perhaps the only – species who sway in time to music, that is, dance.  Could it be that the synchronization of body and sound inherent in dancing is a precursor to human-type speech?  Consider how we anticipate the coming of the next beat in a popular song or symphony.  Consider how a seemingly misplaced beat creates interest, almost like an unexpected response to a conversational question.  If we observe the conversations of others, we may detect a chopped quality, as each participant anticipates the thinking of the other, and sentences sublimate into a series of benign ripostes. 

Just as a listening ear helps us to feel heard, a synchronous composition may help our mood to secure tenancy in the universe.

What is going on when we hear a song that delights us, even though we are hearing it for the first time?  One of music’s attributes is to provide us with predictable parameters, such as timing, instrumentation, and the like, while offering us the novelty of a new voice, tune, or choreography.  The novelty may cause a dopamine boost, even as the familiar latticework offers the predictable flow of a conversation.

“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it,” said Isadora Duncan.  If life itself is a dance, for a social species like ours, small wonder, then, that we strive for the deflections – and reflections – that music provides.

Happiness: A Theory — How to Pursue Happiness

September 1, 2010

Is happiness what is left over after we trim away the pursuit of despondence?  In many respects, the answer may be yes.  We pursue the low road not merely by ruminating fruitlessly over injuries received from others (who often have forgotten, don’t care, or didn’t mean it), but also by focusing on goals that, once achieved, fail to deliver any sort of lasting contentment.  Habituation deprives us of satisfaction within a fairly short time after winning that new post, house, auto, or lottery.  What once stimulated us seems now stale.

One likely source of well being is approaching life with a sense of philosophy.  We view our lives as the result of our actions, and we interpret misfortunes as injuries perpetrated by ourselves or others.  This view is conducive to success for the man of action, the world of business, achievement, and the like.  It is not an incorrect view, but it leaves out happenstance.  Sometimes things just come to pass.  Various aspects of our lives are beyond our control.   No matter how attuned we are to our milieu, we may suffer a setback that was unavoidable.  How do we react to it?  Do we ruminate, or do we take a broader view, recognize that some such misfortune was likely to happen sooner or later, and that is just how it is.  The ability to take the second view is important to happiness, regardless of whether it is an accurate assessment of the particular situation.

It may also be true that traditional goals associated with happiness but which are deadened by habituation need not be discarded.  We are not crazy to enjoy a loving relationship, nice car, job, home, and the like: we may simply need to reinvent our view of these things.  If we know we are inclined to lose interest, that this is simply our biology at work, perhaps we can begin to transcend the boredom and cultivate within ourselves a state of continued appreciation for these and other good things in our lives.  Recognizing that our brains tend to revert to particular perceptions when left untended may encourage us to monitor our own minds as parent watches a child or a shepherd tends to her flock.

We are afraid to lose the people and things we love.  This fear is primary.  If we didn’t have it, it seems, our ancestors would not have survived to produce us.  We may, however, achieve some mastery over this fear by training ourselves to let the sentiment itself go, as much as possible, while preserving sufficient conduct to avoid the loss itself.  Emotions, as previously discussed, catalyze behavior conducive to survival.  But emotions come with all kinds of baggage, including unhappiness.  How do we accomplish this trick?  Recognizing in the first instance that, whatever we may lose, we run a good chance of rekindling our love of life itself, of reverting to our “set point”, may be a start.  Recognizing further that fear of loss is a particular kind of misery may be another step.  Excessive vigilance is life without peace. 

If we mislead ourselves by focusing on goals that grow stale, is it possible for us to find new goals that may give rise to more lasting well being?  If the tendency of our pleasures to become stale is a function of our neuronal architecture, then the answer may be no.  But what if we choose from a menu of things that we enjoy, pursue them, and observe our thoughts and reactions as we go, without judgment, insofar as we can, maintaining awareness of our tendencies to become fatigued and find fault, and nurturing within ourselves a state of appreciation that we are here at all?   Gratitude seems to come naturally when we are released from a state of deprivation, torment, or captivity.  Perhaps, by reminding ourselves of this capacity we have to appreciate life, we can cultivate a state of gratitude a priori

The pursuit of happiness may be facilitated by maintaining an ongoing awareness that these factors are in play, that the sensation of well being is in part the consequence of how we think about things, and that it is something we can work at, something that is susceptible to cultivation. 

One way to sustain ongoing awareness may be the pursuit of knowledge with an open mind.  The more we expose ourselves to the latest discoveries about how things work, including how our own minds function, the more resources we have to grapple with low moods, self doubt, and malaise.  Our short term memory regularly clears the way for new data; our long term memory seems at times oddly selective and remote.  But a steady influx of new data may serve two purposes: novelty, and salient truths.  If we see how things relate to other things we have learned, we may experience the euphoria of discovery, endlessly, as we proceed through our lives.  We may or may not therein be rendered any wiser; but we stand a good chance of  being made happier.