Posts Tagged ‘health’

Fantasy, Species Dominance, and Happiness

January 18, 2016

Our brains are wired to construct a model of the world, outfit it with precepts, then believe in that virtual world, sometimes fiercely. See How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg & Waldman, 2009.  This propensity for fantasy may be our species’ most significant achievement:  By actually believing in things that are true solely within confines of interacting human brains, we leapfrog over the problem of trusting and cooperating with the 50 to 150 people we can keep track of and observe on a regular basis socially, roughly the local community in the tribes of  human history.  By subscribing to a story — virtually any story, that intrinsically cannot withstand the scrutiny of testable evidence — of who we are collectively, we achieve acts of metacooperation that distinguish us categorically from other species and secure our dominion.  See Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, 2015.

The question arises: What relationship does this feature bear to our potential to be happy?

In A Beautiful Mind, we learn that a mentally-compromised mathematician must teach himself to ignore most of the people he perceives to be in the room at a given moment — because they are not really there. In the act of downhill skiing, the student must teach herself to apply pressure to her right foot in order to turn left.  In acquiring any language, we must crowd our brains with parallel utterances, often with an awkwardness that makes the attempt seem futile.

Similarly, to place ourselves in the position of appreciating the day that is about to unfold, to wish to inhabit the world that the universe — along with our personal fantastic story — presents to us on a given day, may be a route to well being. The choreography of improvisation, like a football running back in a field of constantly-shifting defenders, may be the solution.  Our brain demands meaning, it shops for meaning, then plucks ideas and consecrates them.  It feels like a search for truth, but it is likely anything but.  Happiness, then, may consist in gliding lightly over the totemic physiography of a day of life, that rock is either there or not; that cliff, there or not, that trough, and so on.  The descent itself need not be virtiginous.


Happiness: A Theory – Being Humble About What We Know

March 8, 2012



There is a circuit in the brain that snaps shut on the issue of knowledge.  What do I know, we ask ourselves, and then we decide, not unlike a shopper’s query about what to buy at the store today.   The further the question strays from our familiar, repeatable algorithms, the more likely we are simply deciding that we know something of which we know very little.  The brain seems unabashed about engaging in such posturing, with itself, let alone others.


A moment of contemplating our surroundings helps to illuminate the problem.  Within our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are some 200 to 400 billion stars.  Within the observable universe, beyond the Milky Way, there are some 80 billion galaxies.  There are some 30 sextillion to septillion stars out there, in the part we can see.


And yet, just to arrive at a single star, our closest neighbor to the sun, we must travel some 4.3 light years.  If you remember getting sick on a car trip as a kid, just imagine having roadside trouble during a voyage of this magnitude.  Imagine trying to turn around and find your way home.  Even if we could harness a transportation technology that came anywhere close to the speed of light, it is hard to imagine the brave souls who might attempt such a trip, all for the sake of finding a star with no earthlike planet.


Yet, earthlike planets surely are out there.  In a universe so vast, the numbers cry out for evolved life, including life with powers of perception that, by comparison, could make our own cortexes seem on the order of a slime mold.


The problem, however, is that whatever higher order knowing the universe may hold, it is likely so far away, it will flourish and wither in a sequestered capsule.  Yet, just as an ancient mathematician studied shadows on well walls in different locales at the same time of day to discern that our flat-seeming world was a sphere, we may intuit that there are levels of knowing in our universe far beyond our own.


And it is just such an intuition that may serve us to be humble about what we know.  To refrain from puffing ourselves up in a posture of certitude, when our humble circumstances warrant nothing of the kind.


There is a kind of relief available to us in admitting our limited ability to know.  It frees us to appreciate life as it unfolds, in the way it unfolds for us.


Happiness: A Theory – Attitude

November 26, 2010


In their book, How God Changes Your Brain, University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman examine the effects of a strongly-held, positive belief system on our well being, concluding that, religious or not, an optimistic, well-rooted view of the world makes us healthier and happier. 

If they are correct, the proliferation and diversity of beliefs about life and its meaning may be more easily understood, since the belief itself, rather than its veracity, enhances those who hold it.  As a corollary, disabusing others of what we conceive of as incorrect beliefs may be less beneficial than we imagine. 

Adopting a framework for perceiving our universe seems a constant tug within us.  Whether we view life as replete with significance or meaningless, we are often tied to our particular vantage point.  Whether we view our neighbors as essentially rotten or essentially good, again, our perspective is often something we hold dear.

The good effects of believing in our beliefs may nonetheless lead us to an unintended consequence:  whatever mysteries the universe might reveal, they are scarcely more discernible if viewed through only one kind of lens.  When we approach our understanding of what is with an attitude, how likely are we to see things as they are? 

The question arises:  Is there any relationship between our well being and a less-distorted perception of the world?  Herein lies one of the conundra of a diligent search for understanding:  The more we peruse the testable evidence of our neuronal function, the more we reveal our brain’s indifference to the universe as it is.  In order to hold a belief with any tenacity, we tend to need to actually believe it, which becomes harder to do under these circumstances.  If we can’t hold a belief, it would appear, we can’t enjoy the kind of happiness described by Newberg and Waldman.

There may be a solution, however. 

If we adopt the belief that whatever we believe is suspect, that any particular view should be held for the time being, but readily discarded when the testable evidence reveals its flaws, we may console ourselves that we have removed one prominent obstacle to knowing.  Our attitude provides a glimpse of the impetus behind the human quest to know.  When we drop the attitude, however, we may find we have found something truly worthy of belief.

Happiness: A Theory – This Amnesiac Life

October 3, 2010

What can we do about our own failure to remember our recent misdeeds?  Working memory has been described as seven separate pieces of information that are replaced every twenty seconds.  What may appear to be multitasking  may be little more than trolling for focus in a momentary eddy of information.

The information our brain selects to join the pool of facts eligible for consciousness often appears bereft of the negative character of our recent communications.  It simply isn’t necessary to our cohesive function for us to question our own expressive style.  Put simply, if we made a cutting remark, raised our voice, or decapitated the phrasing of our conversational partner, we may well be oblivious to it.  If confronted about our rudeness, we are likely to deny it.

The fallout from blindness to our communicative misdemeanors is a heightened potential for opaque sparring, the verbal equivalent of star wars.   The potential for an empathic  exchange drops to zero.

There may be one answer to this problem.  If we recognize that our own lives unfold like book chapters we have merely scanned, that we proceed regularly without the facts about our own provocations, we may, over time, cultivate empathy toward those who bark angrily at us.

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.

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.

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.