The “Forumula” for Happiness Might Not Be a Literal “Formula” – But Don’t Tell Neuroscientists

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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