What Makes Us Happy? Part 3 - Modern Neuroscience's View
In part one of this series on what makes us happy, I looked at the stories of two successful entrepreneurs and their versions of the secret to the good life. And in that first post I proceeded to unpack some of the problems with their perspectives. In the second post on this subject, I looked at what some of the great sages from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism had to say on the subject. I suspect that many people will read about these lofty claims and find them totally unconvincing and unbelievable. So in this post, I take a brief look at what the latest in science has to say about the claims of these ecstatic mystical types from ages gone by. In summary, science is rapidly producing evidence to support these extraordinary claims.
Let's begin by looking at the nature of our emotional self. Most of us would say that emotions are real and are accurate reflections of a true reality. This claim has recently come into question by work done in neuroscience. The scientists working in this field are showing that emotions, in the words of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, "that seem to happen to you, are actually made by you." Emotions, despite our intuitions on this point, are not designed to be a precise and accurate reflection of what is happening in reality. Rather, they are based on predictions your brain is making using the information coming in from the senses combined with the brain's best match to past experiences. What you experience as 'reality' is actually just a simulation or controlled hallucination manufactured by the brain based on this mix of your beliefs, your memories, and the information coming in from your senses. Using these predictions, the brain generates emotions that function as efficient, body wide mechanisms to move the body to keep you alive or direct you towards generating or protecting offspring.
In my first post I shared the view of my friend who pointed to relationships as the source of living the best possible life. So he is implicitly saying that we need to rely on other people to determine whether we feel good or not. But, if these researchers like Dr. Barrett are right, to depend on your relationships to manage our feelings is doomed to failure. Obviously, if you are better at managing those relationships, you’ll have fewer threats for your body to deal with via the creation of negative emotions so your experience of life will be better than those who don’t invest in those relationships. But is that it? Is that as good as it can get? If it is our brains that manufacture the emotions, then do we have the power to make the good kind?
TED talk by Harvard Medical School Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett on this topic
What if the science is right on this question? What if there is a way to have an even better life than that which healthy relationships brings? A happier, more sustainably peaceful and loving day to day experience of life? The great masters tell us that, in fact, there is a better way. And, tantalizingly, modern science such as the work being done in Dr. Barrett's lab, is finally beginning to back them up.
We now know that our brains have the ability to change. This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, means that who we are and how we habitually feel is not set in stone. Neuroplasticity means that with enough brain training, we can change our experience of life and break the dysfunctional habits that seem so intractable. Scientists have worked out the cellular basis for learning and memory in the brain (called Long Term Potentiation and Long Term Depression, aka “neurons that fire together, wire together”) underlying this plasticity. Various spiritual traditions are basically saying the same thing. We hear statements such as ‘seeing the face of god reflected back at us in everything’ (Ibn ‘Arabi), believing that Jesus ‘freed us from the belief that suffering is real’ (St. Paul), melting into union with god (Mirabai), to ‘acquiring incomparable and unlimited merit’ by realizing that there is no self (Buddha). These are all just old ways of saying that with the right stimulus, the right framework and the right practice, the mind can transform. But if the mind transforms, does that really change our world?
To answer that question, we first have to define what 'our world' is. Modern neuroscientists have come to the conclusion that what each of us experiences as “reality” is little more than a controlled hallucination in many of the same ways that sleep is an uncontrolled one. Anil Seth elucidates how this works in the video linked to below, explaining both our experience of the world around us, the "multi-sensory, panoramic 3D fully immersive inner movie," and the experience of being "the lead character in this inner movie". He uses the example of how we can get our hallucination wrong with the two images below. Cover the image on the right and take a look at the squares A and B. Then cover the one on the left and look at the same squares. They may look different but they are actually the same shade of grey!
As Seth puts it, "we don't just passively perceive the world, we actively generate it."
Even the experience of being a self is a hallucination. In the video, Dr. Seth uses the famous "Rubber Hand" illusion to explain how you can hack your consciousness to experience how what our body is really just a best guess, another form of hallucination. Same thing as we do with the outside world. Dr. Seth makes the point that our experience or reality, both internally and externally, is just a controlled hallucination. We take the electrical and chemical signals coming in to our brain from our senses and make the best predictions about what this means in a way that is relevant to maximizing our body's survival "in a world of danger and opportunity. We predict ourselves into existence," he says.
This idea of the world we perceive being nothing more than a controlled hallucination is an area of active scientific investigation. For example, brain mapping has shown that the number of neurons feeding from the brain TO towards the eye exceeds the number going FROM the eye to the brain by a factor of 10. This means is that we create a version of reality in our brains based on billions upon billions of predictions about what is out there and what its function or threat is and we use our senses, like our eyes, to error check this made up reality that we “see” with our consciousness.
The idea of reality being a controllable hallucination or hologram brings us back to the insights from the ancient masters discussed in the prior post. What they discovered all those hundreds of years ago is that when people do practices like meditation and prayer and chanting, they are changing the way their brain makes predictions and therefore, quite literally, changing their reality. Entering the Kingdom, so to speak.
That all sounds pretty good, but are there limits on how good we can make our hallucination? And is there proof that an enlightened brain is different than the average person's?
We don’t have a Jesus or a Buddha to stick in an MRI, but we do have living masters probably not too dissimilar from a St. Paul, Ibn Al Arabi or Mirabai. And scientists have taken images of their brains in fMRI machines. The result? These individuals have a profoundly different pattern of brain activity than the rest of us. For example, their electrical patterns show a so-called gamma pattern. Gamma waves are large waves of synchrony across widely separated regions of the brain. Scientists have associated these waves with feelings of intense compassion, bliss, and heightened awareness.
With the advanced meditation masters, however, these waves were found to be rhythmic and coherent and evident in harmony across far flung regions of the brain. And more extraordinary than this never before witnessed pattern of gamma waves is that, while strongest during the times when these yogis are meditating, they continue when they are not meditating and even while these individuals sleep!
These living masters have also been tested in all sorts of other ways. When scientists have examined their brain and heart electrical signals, for example, these two areas of electrical activity synchronize or entrain with each other in ways not seen in other people. Their pain reaction, as another example, shows a striking difference to the rest of the human population. When they know pain is imminent, they show little in the way of the anticipatory stress that normal people do, their experience of the pain itself is very short (and actually more intense than normal), and their reaction time back to non-pain is unusually fast. As a final example of how these enlightened brains differ from most people, the biological age of the yogi’s brains are years younger chronologically.
So, in conclusion, as compelling (and common) as they are I don’t think my two conversations with the entrepreneurs I described in my first post quite matched the insights of these ancient masters or modern neuroscience. While their insights were thoughtful and representative of what many a brilliant philosopher throughout the ages have concluded, I suppose I didn’t really expect them to match the enlightened masters.
I will end with a photo of Buddhist master Matthieu Ricard after a three hour session in the confines of an MRI. That certainly isn't how I would imagine anyone looking after that long after being kept awake and restricted from moving at all for three hours, let alone in a claustrophobic tube!