These extraordinary minds of ours.

Serendipity at work.

Chapter 8 of my book is entitled: Behaviours and Relationships. It opens thus:

“It is all to do with relationships.”

I heard this many years before the idea of writing this book came to me. Heard it from J, who was referred to in the previous chapter. J was speaking of what makes for happy people in all walks of life. It’s one of those remarks that initially comes over as such an obvious statement, akin to water being wet or the night being dark, that it is easy to miss the incredible depth of meaning behind those seven words.

Humans are fascinating. Every aspect of who we are can be seen in our relationships. How we relate to people around us, whether it be a thirty-second exchange with a stranger or a long natter with friends whom we have known for decades, including our partners and family relations. The core relationship, of course, the relationship that drives so many of our behaviours is the relationship that we have with ourself. That being rooted in our relationship experiences with the adults around us when we were young people.

When one looks at the performance of successful companies one often sees, nay one always sees, people being valued. The directors and managers of those companies understand that if people are valued then a myriad of benefits flow from that approach to relationships. Moving out of the workplace, the relationships that people have are always stronger and happier if those individual persons know they are valued. Moving beyond people, our dogs, and many other animals, are always stronger and happier if they feel valued. It’s the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Recently over on Mother Nature Network there was an essay presented by Russell McLendon who is science editor for MNN. It is about happiness.

ooOOoo

Happiness is all in your head

Scientists say they’ve found where happiness happens in the brain. What does that mean?

By: Russell McLendon, November 24, 2015

Understanding how our brains generate happiness could help make it less elusive, researchers say. (Photo: Andrew Vargas/Flickr)
Understanding how our brains generate happiness could help make it less elusive, researchers say. (Photo: Andrew Vargas/Flickr)

Everyone wants to be happy. Yet despite all our efforts in pursuit of this prized emotion, it can be a surprisingly nebulous goal. What is “happiness,” exactly?

That question has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years, and it’s still tricky for anyone to tackle. But recent advances in neuroscience have finally begun to shed light on it, and now a new study claims to have found an answer. Being told happiness is “all in your head” may seem both obvious and dismissive, but in this case the specifics are also empowering. The more we know about how (and where) happiness happens, the less helpless we’ll be to summon it when we need it.

By comparing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with questionnaires about emotional states, researchers from Kyoto University in Japan say they’ve traced the experience of happiness to a specific part of the human brain. Overall happiness, they conclude, occurs when positive emotions combine with a sense of life satisfaction in the precuneus, a region of the medial parietal lobe that’s linked to important brain tasks like episodic memory, self-reflection and consciousness.

Psychologists already distinguish between broad life satisfaction and “subjective well-being,” since happiness often seems to fade during bad moods without necessarily plunging us into deeper existential despair. But by revealing the neural mechanics of how these feelings combine to create overall happiness, the authors of the new study hope to make it easier to objectively quantify this mysterious and elusive emotion.

“Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is,” lead author Wataru Sato says in a press release. “I’m very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy.”

Scientists used MRI brain scans to identify happiness in a brain region known as the precuneus. (Photo: Kyoto University)
Scientists used MRI brain scans to identify happiness in a brain region known as the precuneus. (Photo: Kyoto University)

To pinpoint the location of happiness, Sato and his colleagues first used MRI to scan the brains of their study subjects. Those participants then took a survey, which asked about their general sense of happiness, the intensity of their emotions and the degree of their overall life satisfaction.

After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that those who scored higher on the happiness survey also had more gray matter mass in the precuneus. That means this brain region is larger in people who feel happiness more intensely, feel sadness less intensely and who are better able to find meaning in life.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to show that the precuneus is associated with subjective happiness,” the researchers write in the journal Scientific Reports.

Complex phenomena like happiness rarely boil down to a single brain region, but other recent research also points to an outsized role for the precuneus. A study published this month links impaired connectivity in the precuneus to depression, for example, and a 2014 study suggests the region is a “distinct hub” in the brain’s default-mode network, which is active during self-reflection and daydreaming.

All this may seem like an esoteric quest for neuroscientists, but it’s about more than just academic curiosity. By knowing which parts of the human brain generate our sensation of happiness, we might develop more accurate ways to test methods of becoming happier, like travel, exercise or meditation.

“Several studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter mass in the precuneus,” Sato says. “This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programs based on scientific research.”

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It’s an unscientific opinion from me but I truly believe that humans have a bias towards happiness. And if there’s one animal that we can learn happiness from, it’s the dog!

Photo: Kiuko/flickr.
Photo: Kiuko/flickr.

18 thoughts on “These extraordinary minds of ours.

  1. By coincidence, I am writing a philosophical essay “Why Life Is Bad & How To Fix It”. It’s a completely new philosophical angle on the matter. Not in practicing it: the angle I will reveal has long been practiced. Meaning people have long lived accordingly, and sometimes all too accordingly. But speaking about it is new (hi Dalai lama, oh great guru! ;-)).

    It roughly says that the practice of nature makes a body and mind good. But nature in full, with its dangers and elations, not just a piece of green as on a golf course. Ignoring this has vast consequences.

    Between us, brain localization studies don’t mean much. Indeed one can never know whether one is spotting a consequence, or a cause. Correlation is not causation: ignoring this simple philosophical factoid make grandiose conclusions on brain loacalization always silly.

    Example: Brain localization studies did not show the frontal neocortex was involved in walking. But simple, incontrovertible experiments show this directly.

  2. Both that gorgeous little boy and that gorgeous little dog look happy. I do think that in some ways ignorance and innocence of the bad things in the world can make one happier than knowing about them – The old saying ” where ignorance is bliss, it’s folly to be wise”. Perhaps that’s why so many people don’t want to know and choose not to inform themselves about the many serious problems in our world. I reckon I must have an ‘unhappiness gene’ on that score because I am a news and information junkie – good, bad or otherwise.

    1. Well, you don’t come across as having an unhappiness gene in your replies in this place. 🙂 Whatever is going on in the world, valuing people is a good principle for the future.

  3. I think this touches on, or has parallels with, the so-called Hard Problem of consciousness Paul. These studies show correlates in the brain, yet they don’t show us what happiness is – only the qualia of happiness can do that, the lived and subjectively felt experiences of it. When McLendon asks “what is ‘happiness’, exactly?”, he really asks what the neural correlates are, which are distinctly not what happiness is. He’s really positing a Hard Materialist view of consciousness, in which consciousness is identical to brain states, and exists in no category of its own; in other words he’s suggesting it’s illusory, in spite of our apprehending of it.

    1. Not surprised that you were drawn to today’s post, Hariod. Clearly, happiness is not an illusion, neither in man and nor in many sentinent creatures. Yet with all the other emotions that we humans can feel and sense they also seem to be just beyond scientific understanding. But, ultimately, there must be a scientific underpinning to all of our emotions?

      1. “There must be a scientific underpinning to all of our emotions” – Undeniably, any emotion has a physical component, a feeling, one which can be measured and analysed empirically, such that neural correlates may be traced – at least theoretically. Any emotion also has a thought component, which again can be treated in this way. However, whilst these correlates are causal in some degree, they do not account for the illumination of the emotions themselves, in other words the haecceity or ‘thisness’ of the very illumination itself.

        That remains the Hard Problem of consciousness, one which science as yet has no answer for. Latest theories include ideas such as that some degree of subjectivity/awareness obtains in all integrated information (i.e. things, animate or not), and as posited by Giulio Tononi. Alternatively that awareness may be a fundamental property of the universe itself (David Chalmers), however bizarre that may sound. Until we know how matter comes to experience itself and the world subjectively, then we cannot presume to know completely any ‘underpinning’.

  4. On what Hariod said: Quantum processes “behave” as if they were conscious of the environment at a distance. The “Chalmers” idea is at least as old as Eugen Wigner (Wigner’s friend paradox).

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