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The "Forumula" for Happiness Might Not Be a Literal "Formula" - But Don't Tell Neuroscientists

Posted on 07 Aug | 4 comments
The "Forumula" for Happiness Might Not Be a Literal "Formula" - But Don't Tell Neuroscientists

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to the APA Annual Conference in Washington, DC, there will be no post on Friday, August 8, 2014. The New Existentialists will resume its regular posting schedule on Monday, August 11, 2014. Thank you for your understanding.

This week in hubristic neuroscience:

*  Researchers at the University College, London, say that they have developed the mathematical formula for a discrete moment of happiness.  (It’s the picture accompanying this article, if you’re curious).

“Using functional MRI, we demonstrated that neural signals during task events account for changes in happiness,” the authors write, which is a like saying that the signals they have on traffic lights account for traffic accidents.   The idea that the neural signals recorded are an effect, not a cause – or even just a proximate phenomenon - doesn’t seem to enter into the discussion.  Nor does the idea that when you straps people into an fRMI, have them play money games while constantly asking them “How happy are you?” what you’re recording is something that no actual human being would ever think of as a good time.

In fact the great insight the neuroscientists say they got from the experiment was not the “neural formula” for momentary pleasure, but rather the insight that “happiness spikes” when things go better than expected, but that the effects fade over time.

It would be stretch to say that everyone already knows that, but certainly Aristotle and Montaigne managed to deduce it without the benefits of neural scans … and I’m pretty sure they published first.

*  Another fMRI study, this one using virtual reality simulations of a burning building, attempted to “study the neuronal basis of altruistic behavior.”  How did the brain activity of people who risked their “virtual” lives to help “virtual” strangers “survive” a “virtual” fire differ from the brain activity of people who could not possibly take this scenario seriously?

I mean honestly now:  does spending time in an esperiment to help a stranger not be “hurt” in what you explicitly know is a virtual environment actually resemble heroism in any meaningful sense?  Sharing popcorn at the movies seems more altruistic.

Different regions of the brain, the authors found, did in fact fire differently on average for those who “helped” the virtual strangers and those who did not.  They have no idea what it means, at all, but they’re certain that they have finally explained heroism.  So if you were wondering if you should think about heroism at all, let alone cultivate it, there’s no need anymore.  It’s your brain.

Glad we got that settled.

*  Aoen Magazine recently examined the way “The new science of addiction makes 12-step programmes (sic) look like folk medicine,” and asks “Is the concept of a higher power obsolete?”

Mind you, the article admits that no other approaches – from the cognitive behavioral to the psychopharmaceutical, let alone neurological surgeries that do not, in fact, exist at this time - have a better track record of helping people address addiction in controlled studies, let alone has the overwhelming track record in public life.

So score one for folk medicine, I guess.

Curiously, the article refers to a program of ongoing self-examination and community dialogue as a “one-size-fits-all therapy” … as opposed to asking people to take mass produced pills, which is of course is diversity itself.

But it “can’t possibly address every facet of the disease: addiction is a habit rooted in brain circuitry, but also frequently a consequence of a traumatic experience or exposure from childhood onwards,” author Rebecca Ruiz writes.

Well that depends on what is meant by “address,” doesn’t it?  Brain plasticity is an established fact – we know that new experiences, or even compelling thinking, can rewire the brain.  More to the point:  if talking through one’s issues in a community setting and accepting that one needs help isn’t “addressing” traumatic experiences, what could possibly be?

Ruiz does point out that 12-step programs may not work for people forced into them, say, by a court order.  But I think it’s no knock on the efficacy of self-reflection and communal support to suggest that people who don’t want to be in a recovery program likely won’t get much from it.  As millennia of human history has proven, you can’t force someone to accept a higher power.  Or much of anything if they don’t want it.  If people took everything that courts told them to heart, they wouldn’t have such a hard time finding juries.

The point of all this is to point out, yet again, that researching brain activity is not the same as thinking carefully about a subject;  that fMRI scans tend to offer little in the way of information beyond what’s happening in an fMRI scan;  and that in fact much of what is worth thinking and knowing about human behavior was written down well before the advance of neuroscience – or even modern rationalism.

If you want to understand happiness, heroism, and addiction, you’re much better off reading Aristotle, Montaigne, Tocqueville, Rochefoucauld, and Shakespeare – among many others.  They were neither peer reviewed nor neuroscientists, but they got it right the first time.

-- Benjamin Wachs

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Comments and Discussions

I'd like to credit this quote

I'd like to credit this quote to the writer in something we are doing about Laing: It matters that people have a way to use the latest findings in psychology beyond buying a pill for depression. "

Can you forward that person's name?

First, as I said, I agree

First, as I said, I agree that attempting to reduce happiness to a mathematical formula is absurd. But, in ‘calling out’ the scientists for such an absurd conclusion, you may be contributing to the kind of media sensationalism that gives scientific investigation a bad name. Examples of headlines yesterday: “A Formula for Happiness” (NY Times); “This is Literally a Formula for Happiness” (National Journal); “Happiness Equation Reveals Key to Cheery Life” (Yahoo.com). I seriously doubt that the researchers involved in this project concluded anything close to “Happiness = X.” More likely, they merely identified certain correlations between experience, self-reporting, and brain activity. I may be giving them more credit than they deserve, but the phenomenon of media overstatement is quite real and quite insidious.

As to your main point: that one is better off reading Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, et al, “to understand happiness, heroism, and addiction” than looking to scientific research, I disagree (but not with much vehemence). Exploring and reveling in the ideas of our forerunners is not a waste of time. On the contrary, intellectual explorers of every age fashion their understanding and perspective on the shoulders of their predecessors. Yet, reliance on the ideas of past sages as the ‘last word’ is intellectually lazy for the individual and dangerous when adopted by the crowd. It’s like a Christian minister advising his congregation: ‘don’t ask questions, look to your Bible.’

As with most conflicting paths, a middle lane is probably the best choice. Read and appreciate the accumulated knowledge of the past, but constantly question and investigate and reflect. With apologies to Alex Trebek (and B.F. Skinner), there is no final answer. There is only interesting discoveries and worthy insights on an endless journey of exploration – insights that come from both the artist’s pen and the scientist’s laboratory.

I have lots to say about 12-step programs too, but I have to go to work.

Always a pleasure to read your posts, Benjamin.

I'm absolutely  not claiming

I'm absolutely  not claiming that modern scientific research is unnecessary.  But I stand by the argument that "If you want to understand happiness, heroism, and addiction, you’re much better off reading Aristotle, Montaigne, Tocqueville, Rochefoucauld, and Shakespeare." 

There are lots of things that can go wrong with brains-as-biology, and neuroscience will be vital to providing help in those areas.  You would not want Aristotle to be your surgeon.  But blatant attempts to reduce human experience to neuronal firing is absurd, and should be called out. 

Aristotle claimed that snot

Aristotle claimed that snot is brain matter and that some men are born to be slaves. Montaigne believed that humans can know the truth of existence only if “it has pleased God in his goodness to enlighten us.” Tocqueville believed that the economic future of democracy lay in the callused hands of the farmer.

Please don’t misunderstand; I adore Aristotle’s rigorous logic, Montaigne’s skepticism, and Shakespeare’s puns. Yet, to suggest that modern scientific research is unnecessary because all the secrets of the world can be found in the works of hoary philosophers and poets is as ridiculous as claiming to have reduced happiness to a mathematical formula.

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