Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Searching the brain for happiness

Searching the brain for happiness
By Dr Morten L Kringelbach
Neuroscientist at the University of Oxford

For thousands of years people have pursued happiness, but the problem has been that it has always been seen as a kind of fuzzy concept.

But now, in a new BBC Two series called The Happiness Formula, neuroscientists say happiness is tangible and the result of brain activity - you can see it and even measure it. Dr Kringelbach is a contributor to the programme.

In November 2005 the Dalai Lama was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington DC.

While this event was not without controversy, his speech was generally well received and surprised many scientists with his remarkable open-mindedness, particularly concerning the validity of neuroscientific enquiry.

The Dalai Lama described a normal person's mind as "a troublemaker" and confessed that he "still feels anger and fear".

Meditation, he said, can help. But he was not adverse to other paths and volunteered himself as a patient if neuroscientists wanted to pursue easier ways to quell the "troublemakers of the mind".

The pursuit of happiness is a preoccupation for many of us and has probably been since the dawn of mankind.

Yet few of us come close to achieving this state with any regularity.

And even when happiness finally descends upon us, we often only realise it after the fact.

The neuroscience of happiness and well-being is still in its infancy.

So far, the focus of research has been on two related but perhaps somewhat distant cousins: pleasure and desire.

Reward would seem to be central to both of these states and so has been studied in other animals by behavioural psychologists since at least the beginning of the 20th century.

Pleasure centre

In studies during the 1950s psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner working at McGill University in Canada, found that rats would repeatedly press levers to receive tiny jolts of current injected through electrodes implanted deep within their brains.

When this brain stimulation was targeted at certain areas of the brain the rats would repeatedly press the lever - even up to 2000 times per hour.

In fact they would stop almost all other normal behaviours, including feeding, drinking and sex.

These findings seemed to suggest that Olds and Milner had discovered the pleasure centre in the brain, and it turns out that these overlap with the regions damaged in Parkinson's disease.

The main chemical aiding neural signalling in these regions is dopamine, and so it was quickly dubbed the brain's "pleasure chemical".

Additional human studies during the 1960s by Robert Heath at Tulane University in the US tried to take advantage of these findings in some ethically questionable experiments on mentally ill patients.

Infamously, they even implanted electrodes to try to cure homosexuality. This line of research was eventually stopped.

Although the researchers also found compulsive lever pressing in some patients, it is not clear from these patients' subjective reports that the electrodes did indeed cause real pleasure.

Wanting and liking

Instead, recent work by Kent Berridge, at the University of Michigan in the US, indicates that the electrodes may have been activating the anatomical regions that are involved in desire rather than pleasure.

Investigating reward systems in rats, Berridge found that they have specific facial expressions for pleasant and nasty tasting foods.

Sugary food makes them lick their lips contentedly - just as human infants do, whereas a bitter taste leads to a disgusted, lip-curling expression.

When Berridge manipulated the rats' dopamine levels, he found that their expressions remained unchanged.

Berridge is therefore proposing a distinction between desire and pleasure - wanting and liking - in terms of both the brain regions and the neurochemical substances that mediate these subjective states.

The dopamine system appears to encode desire while the opioid system, which contains our own natural morphine-like compounds, is closer to pleasure.

It is clear, however, that rats are different from humans.

Pleasure and desire are complex emotions in humans, and so there are still many interesting things to learn.

Central to current research is a brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region that is evolutionary more recently developed in humans and has connections to both the opioid and dopamine systems.

Using neuroimaging, we have found that it contains regions that correlate with subjective reports of pleasure.

What can this research ultimately tell us about happiness, pleasure and desire?


Could happiness be best described as pleasure without desire, a state of contentment and indifference?

Such a state is perhaps akin to the kind of bliss that buddhists actively seek through meditation.

If so, it is possible that neuroscientists may one day find ways to help induce this state.

We might then have choice of a true utilitarian society where the overall happiness can really be maximized just as the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham wanted.

Although the question of whether such a society would be desirable and pleasurable still remains to be answered.

The Dalai Lama was clearly interested in the end state of happiness, rather than the means by which it is achieved.

However, he also spoke of how humans have "much conflicting emotion, much bad emotion, jealousy, anger, fear. This is our great troublemaker."

He reminded the audience of the "fundamental values of compassion and affection" that are "important to the development of body and brain".

It would seem prudent for future research on happiness, pleasure and desire not to ignore this compassionate plea for human dignity, while tinkering with the very core of what makes us human.

Dr Morten Kringelbach is a contributor to The Happiness Formula which is broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 1900 BST.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/05/02 19:11:41 GMT

Monday, December 8, 2008

Happiness is contageous

Yes, It's Catching | Discovery News Video .Dec. 5, 2008 -- When you're smiling, the whole world really does smile with you.

A paper being published Friday in a British medical journal concludes that happiness is contagious -- and that people pass on their good cheer even to total strangers.

American researchers who tracked more than 4,700 people in Framingham, Mass., as part of a 20-year heart study also found the transferred happiness is good for up to a year.

"Happiness is like a stampede," said Nicholas Christakis, a professor in Harvard University's sociology department and co-author of the study. "Whether you're happy depends not just on your own actions and behaviors and thoughts, but on those of people you don't even know."

Related Content: While the study is another sign of the power of social networks, it ran through 2003, just before the rise of social networking Web sites like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook. Christakis couldn't say for sure whether the effect works online.

"This type of technology enhances your contact with friends, so it should support the kind of emotional contagion we observed," he said.

Christakis and co-author James Fowler, of the University of California in San Diego, are old hands at studying social networks. They previously found that obesity and smoking habits spread socially as well.

For this study, published in the British journal BMJ, they examined questionnaires that asked people to measure their happiness. They found distinct happy and unhappy clusters significantly bigger than would be expected by chance.

Happy people tended to be at the center of social networks and had many friends who were also happy. Having friends or siblings nearby increased people's chances of being upbeat. Happiness spread outward by three degrees, to the friends of friends of friends.

Happy spouses helped, too, but not as much as happy friends of the same gender. Experts think people, particularly woman, take emotional cues from people who look like them.

Christakis and Fowler estimate that each happy friend boosts your own chances of being happy by 9 percent. Having grumpy friends decreases it by about 7 percent.

But it also turns out misery don't love company: Happiness seemed to spread more consistently than unhappiness. But that doesn't mean you should drop your gloomy friends.

"Every friend increases the probability that you're at the center of a network, which means you are more eligible to get a wave of happiness," Fowler said.

Being happy also brings other benefits, including a protective effect on your immune system so you produce fewer stress hormones, said Andrew Steptoe, a psychology professor at University College London who was not involved with the study.

But you shouldn't assume you can make yourself happy just by making the right friends.

"To say you can manipulate who your friends are to make yourself happier would be going too far," said Stanley Wasserman, an Indiana University statistician who studies social networks.

The study was only conducted in a single community, so it would take more research to confirm its findings. But in a time of economic gloom, it also suggested some heartening news about money and happiness.

According to the research, an extra chunk of money increases your odds of being happy only marginally -- notably less than the odds of being happier if you have a happy friend.

"You can save your money," Christakis said. "Being around happy people is better."

Mind Matters Most

MMM : Mind Matters Most

“Mastery of speech is good, mastery of physical actions is good, but one who masters the mind is a real warrior.” Can’t remember where I read this quote, but it left an impression.

Like many, I went through my midlife crisis and struggled to find answers to questions such as, what is the meaning of life; what is my purpose and what is real happiness? I thought that if I could answer these questions I could then understand how to my mind works and how I would master it?

Had heard of hypnosis and thought that, it would be an easy way to conquer the mind. I’ll just lie on a couch and allow a qualified hypnotist perform surgery on my mind. It did not work! I came out of hypnosis exactly the way I had gone in. My mind was still unsettled. Next I went to a healer and then a fortune teller in the hope of getting answers to my questions. Each time I came out even more disillusioned and confused.

I started doing my own research and almost all research pointed me towards meditation.

Just the word “meditation” puts me in a state of unease as I am one of those who can’t stay still even for a minute and meditation is all about stilling the mind and focusing on a single thought.

But I had made up my mind to become a mind warrior “As an archer aims an arrow, a carpenter carves wood, the wise shape their lives.” The Dhamppada

I had to shape my own life as I was the only one in control of it. I had read about a Buddhist meditation technique called Vipassana. Some friends had gone for the 10 day course and had come out feeling transformed. I felt compelled towards it and thought I’d give it a try. All I had to do was have no contact with the outside world, have two vegetarian meals a day and observe noble silence for the duration of my stay. Noble silence means absolutely no talking or communicating in any way with the fellow meditators. That sounded a bit of a challenge.

Well I guess the road to wisdom and mastery would demand a few sacrifices!

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

So I drove myself to Karnal (a little village in the north of India) on the eve of the 10 day course. There were a few others signing in. I looked around to see the expression on people's faces looking for some kind of assurance, anything to make me feel that I would survive the 10 days. I had heard so many people talk about how strict and tough the regime was that I needed assurance to be able to handle the so called penance camp.

At around 6.00 pm we all gathered in the hall where we were asked to get rid of personal belongings such as phones, books, wallets, note books, pens etc. Anything that would distract us from the complete immersion into our minds.

As I started giving away my life lines, I started feeling very uneasy and broke the first rule. I snuck a phone in my bag, promising myself not to use it, but just having it in my possession gave me the much needed support structure. We were told about the rules and regulations and starting 8.00 pm that night would be the last time we would be allowed to speak for the next 10 days.

I was ready for the challenge!!!!

Day 1

4.00 am the bell rings right outside my door but I had been hearing sounds since 3.30 am as there were some rather enthusiastic attendees who had woken up at 3.15 am and were already queuing for the bathrooms and shower. So, kicking and dragging myself out of the bed I went and stood in line for my turn to use the facilities. Nobody even acknowledged each other, we all stood there like zombies letting our imaginations run wild and judging each other in our MINDS. Our monkey minds had not been tamed yet.

4.30 am we all gather in the meditation hall and are played a tape guiding us as to what to do. The focus was mainly on the breath, the technique is called anapana where one is asked only to observe the breath.

How in the world was I supposed to observe my breath? Do I look for movement in my chest? Do I look out for tiny particles of moisture coming out of my breath? What was I supposed to do? How does one watch their breath?

Well, all I was supposed to do was to concentrate on my breathing and acknowledge the incoming and outgoing breath without any judgment or expectation. Sounds easy but trust me; it is one of the most difficult things to do.

Having woken up with the birds was starting to take its toll on me. Trying to watch my breath, I started to doze off. I very quietly snuck out to the back of the room and drifted into slumber land. My freedom was however short lived. Within about 2 min or so I got a slight nudge on my shoulder; it was one of the helpers. She very politely asked me not to doze and try and sit still. After all I was here to learn meditation and the number one enemy of meditation is SLOTH!

My boarding and lodging was completely free, all I had to do was to follow the 5 percepts ( to abstain from killing any being; to abstain from stealing; to abstain from all sexual activity; to abstain from telling lies; to abstain from all intoxicants) and conduct myself according to the laid down code of discipline. It sounded easy in the beginning, but only two hours into the first day and I wanted to run away and find my way back into the comfort of my bed.

6.30 -7.00 am was breakfast time and 7.00 -9.00 was time for Q&A with the teacher. Most of us ran back after breakfast and went straight to bed for a quick nap. I think I passed out; 8.45 the bell tolled again.

We were asked to be seated for the next round of meditation that went from 9.00 am to 11.30 am. Two and a half hours of sitting cross legged, eyes shut and watching my breath, I was losing my head. I had absolutely no concentration; I just couldn’t seem to focus. All I kept thinking was; why was I doing this to myself? What madness had descended over me that propelled me into such masochism?

Eventually the bell rang, informing us about the lunch hour.

All went straight into the dining room for a simple yet tasteful vegetarian meal. Hunger and desperation made the food taste fantastic. Lunch was from 11.30 to 12.30 and then about an hour of freedom followed by Q &A with the teacher.

At 2.30 pm back into the meditation hall for two more hours of watching the breath. This time it was just impossible to keep my eyes open, started to nod off yet again, but this time I was woken up by this extremely cacophonous burp that reverberated in the pin drop silence. I was jolted out of my reverie and brought right back into the inner me. Not a sound from anyone, and I was dying to laugh. I looked around the room, and only another newcomer had a faint smile, but the rest were like statues, unmoved and unaffected. In the next 9 days I was to hear so many different sounds that this seemed like a melody.

Somehow got through the day. 7.00 pm was the time for discourse where we were told about why we did what we did. This was the best part of the day. At least there was an explanation, to the madness.

According to Goenka ji, the modern day guru of Vipassana, “meditation means a continuous detachment from the body, mind, name and form. We have to detach ourselves from the day to day activities. Unclutter our mind from the mindless chatter and bring our focus inwards. Through meditation the scientific laws that operate one's thoughts, feelings, judgments and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace. ”

By the time I went back to my room, I was completely in awe of myself. I had managed to go one full day without speaking and actually internalizing.

This was just day 1…………… I had 9 more to go.

I could describe each day in detail; but that would take almost half a book, so let me cut to the chase and come to the part where I can share some real pearls of wisdom.

As I continued to sit cross legged on the floor for the next 9 days, my whole life kept flashing in front of me. My achievements, my mistakes, my pains, my sorrow and my joy. In the silence, I heard so much noise that I thought my brain would explode. As the days kept progressing the noise kept getting louder. I hated every minute of being there. It felt like an experience straight out of a very dark movie where you are the only survivor.

By the 7th day I had a break down. I cried till I had no more tears. I wanted to run away from what felt like a jail. I wanted to scream and shout and call names, I threw up and felt sick in my stomach.

I don’t think I was getting any wiser or calmer. Seeing my distraught state, the teacher summoned me and explained to me what really was happening. I was experiencing deep cleansing.

All our life we keep burying our pains and sorrows deep within. We suppress our feelings and muffle our thoughts in the external noise so they either transform into physical or mental ailments.

Seven days of complete silence and introspection had brought all the deep seated issues to the surface and they were now being purged. I was experiencing the emotional and physical signs of release. The catharsis had begun.

After all the purging I felt much lighter and calmer. I didn’t feel like a prisoner anymore. I felt liberated, not only physically but mentally.

Two more days of the regimented life and we would soon be free to join the real world. The world that we have chosen to create for ourselves. The world full of so much external noise that the internal dialogue gets completely muffled. The world where our ego gets pumped and it gets shattered. The world where we experience pain and joy as rides of the roller coaster. The world that we believe to be real.

Finally the 10th day arrives. We can now break our vow of silence.

By now something huge has happened. I could feel a transformation in my chemical makeup. I experienced strange energies which were almost orgasmic. I can’t explain, but it felt as if my whole being had regenerated.

I just didn’t feel like talking. This was a revelation; unfortunately the urge not to speak did not stay for too long. Within about an hour I was back to being my old chatty self.

But something somewhere changed.

No, I have not yet become a master of my mind, neither have I attained nirvana, but I surely have come to the realization that I do not have to depend on hypnotists, therapists , healers and fortune tellers to tell me how to heal my life. All I have to do is dig deep enough and long enough.

Each person that attends Vipassana has a different experience, for some it is joyful, for some extremely painful, but for all it is life changing.

Would I do it again?

Would love to, but am still trying to gather the courage.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely yes. Even if the only reason was “because it is there”.

For more information please visit www.dhamma.org


Shveitta sethi