Happiness

Children smile as they are hit by a wave

Happiness

Research has tended to look at the dark side of life – anxiety, depression and so on. The flipside, happiness or contentment, has been neglected, but ‘positive psychology’ is now receiving more attention

Money can’t buy me love, sang the Beatles, and it can’t buy much happiness either. A little bit extra seems to help, but above a fairly low threshold more money does not add to our happiness (though around the world, a great many people will be below this threshold).

Relative wealth seems to be crucial – is there someone better off than us? As Samuel Johnson noted: “Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.”

Similarly, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden, the UK and the USA all share similar life satisfaction scores even though average income varies ten-fold between the richest and poorest countries.

Come on, get happy

In 44 countries surveyed in 2002, family life provided the greatest source of satisfaction. And it’s good for us too: married people live on average three years longer and enjoy greater physical and psychological health than the unmarried. More generally, the extent of our social network is the best predictor of happiness.

Other important factors include satisfaction with work and working conditions and the extent of choice and political freedom in the society in which we live.

More recent research (as reported in the World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam, which covers around 19,000 scientific findings on happiness) has busted a few misconceptions:

  • One, though we generally assume we need goals to lead a happy life, they can also have a negative fact: unhappy people are more aware of their goals because they are trying to change their life for the better.
  • Two, seeing meaning in life isn’t a necessary condition for happiness.
  • Three, age brings greater happiness than youth (along with wisdom). Less surprising perhaps, findings in the Database to date (2013) indicate an active life is likely to be the happiest.

Denmark was scored the happiest of countries twice recently, in the first and second World Happiness Reports (published by Columbia University in 2012 and the UN in September 2013).

A report published by the Happiness Research Institute (a Copenhagen-based think tank) sets out reasons for ‘The Happy Danes’. As well as a few obvious factors like a good work–life balance, free healthcare and good employment benefits, a high level of trust between people was cited as an important factor in their happiness.

Can we do anything about our state of happiness? Good fortune can raise our mood temporarily, but we gradually return to some kind of baseline, suggesting that we may have some in-built happiness level. If we do want to be happy, it is best to concentrate on social connections and fulfilling work rather than the pursuit of wealth – or you could move to Bhutan, where the King recently announced that his nation’s objective would be gross national happiness.

Lead image:

Farrukh/Flickr CC BY NC

References

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Ecology and environment, Psychology
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Probing personality

4 Children sat around a pub bench with different facial expressions

Probing personality

Can personality be studied in a reliable way?

We all recognise that people are unique, with distinct personalities. We also have an urge to categorise, and numerous approaches have been taken to analyse personalities and draw out common themes. Personality is sometimes broken down into a number of qualities.

The most common tests focus on four or five qualities – such as the so-called Big Five:

  • openness to experience
  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness
  • neuroticism
  • extraversion.

Subjects complete carefully constructed questionnaires and end up with a score for each of the categories.

A variant of this method is the Myers–Briggs model, which is based on the book ‘Psychological Types’ written by the psychiatrist Karl Jung in the early 1900s. This model assesses:

  • extraversion vs introversion
  • sensing vs intuition
  • thinking vs feeling
  • judging vs perceiving.

The Big Five is still the dominant model today for personality studies, although some replace ‘neuroticism’ with ‘emotional stability’ to reflect an ideal direction towards low neuroticism. One researcher has suggested a sixth dimension to the model – ‘honesty and humility’. Debate is ongoing in the field as to whether the five- or six-pronged model is the right one.

Personality models have come under attack because of their lack of a biological basis, but the field of biological psychology is attempting to address this. A 2011 paper published in ‘Psychological Science’ used brain imaging to support the theory of there being a biological basis to the Big Five. The paper’s researchers suggest a neuroscientific approach could support further understanding of human psychology.

Results?

These models seem to be somewhat robust – if people do the tests on different days, their scores tend to be similar and they are not influenced much by mood.

But are these measures of value? They can be useful tools for self-awareness and can help people understand and interact with others. They may also help to identify people susceptible to mental health problems.

For example, psychological measures provide a very good way of picking out people likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic incident. PTSD is relatively rare, which makes it controversial, but a 2012 study of research papers examining the link between PTSD and personality traits since 1980 (when it was first identified as a disorder in the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’) found consistent links to traits like moodiness, anxiety, envy and anger. It also found three personality-based subtypes of PTSD: externalising (acting out), internalising (depressive) and even a mild form of the disorder (‘low-pathology PTSD’).

One problem with such personality tests, though, is that individuals can end up being pigeonholed into a certain ‘type’ or influenced to behave in ways they think are expected of them.

Lead image:

Nick Ford/Flickr CC BY NC ND

References

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Trust me, I’m a scientist

Two scientists in a lab

Trust me, I’m a scientist

Although we do fall out occasionally, human society is notable for its degree of cooperation between individuals

Cooperation presents a difficulty for evolutionary theory, which at its simplest suggests that individuals should just look out for themselves. Research suggests that there is a genetic component underlying this phenomenon, in which even less-closely related individuals help each other.

More sophisticated analyses, though, show that helping others can bring you benefits – the phenomenon of indirect reciprocity: you help somebody, somebody else helps you. This analysis can explain how factors such as reputation, perceived moral character and other aspects of social communication can develop.

We know a little about the brain systems responsible for these phenomena. Logical reasoning plays a part but is not the whole story. One interesting player is the hormone oxytocin, which encourages bonding. When given to subjects playing a risky investment game, it makes them more trusting of their (unidentified) partners.

Lead image:

The US Food and Drug Administration/Flickr CC BY

References

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Genetics and genomics, Neuroscience, Ecology and environment
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Moody blues

View of a hospital bed through a window

Moody blues

Does our state of mind affect our response to illness?

Whether the body is influenced by the mind has been the subject of heated debate. Conventional medicine has tended to see the body as ‘hardware’, and disease as a broken transistor or switch that needs replacing. Psychological problems are ‘software’ issues, separate from the machine running them and needing different solutions.

Although it is early days, there are signs that mind and body, software and hardware, interact more than was initially thought. People with a positive attitude seem to recover more quickly from stress, and a negative attitude has been shown to be detrimental to health. But evidence about the benefits of a positive attitude on conditions like breast cancer seems unclear; some research suggests a benefit, other research doesn’t.

A recent study showed that breast cancer patients who imagined their bodies fighting cancer had a healthier immune response and felt better than their fellow patients. But despite this, disease progression didn’t seem to improve.

How might mental processes influence the body’s biochemistry? It is becoming clear that different aspects of human biology – such as the nervous system, immune system and hormone systems – are more interconnected than once thought. So the stress hormone, cortisol, affects the immune system, and we get more infections when we are stressed.

There is also evidence that mood can influence the immune system. For example, levels of messenger molecules, cytokines, are abnormal in depression.

Many self-help groups still actively encourage patients to fight cancer with positive thoughts, whatever the scientific evidence. But several doctors think this places an unfair burden on a patient, as patients worry about periods of negativity and blame themselves for relapses.

Lead image:

Lars Plougmann/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Psychology, Neuroscience, Health, infection and disease
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Times past

Painting depicting Hippocrates lecturing to his students

Times past

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived around 400 BCE, was the first to emphasise the importance of the body in generating functions such as memory, thought and reason

Hippocrates proposed a purely materialist account of body and mind in which our health and behaviour are governed by four ‘humours’ – blood, phlegm, bile and black bile. Lower passions such as greed and lust must reside in the liver and guts, reason in the head. These ideas persist – we still speak of making decisions according to our heart or our head.

The philosopher Plato, who lived during the same period, rejected this idea. He believed in the soul. These competing theories prevailed until the 17th century, when French philosopher René Descartes conceived the idea that there is a total split between the conscious mind and the body – the dualist concept. He believed that voluntary thought and movement are the properties of an immortal soul.

The dualist concept has endured for centuries. It has been successful probably because, intuitively, we find it hard to accept the idea that ‘mere’ brain tissue can produce feelings and experiences like love, imagination, dreams and passion.

For ages, scientists were reluctant to tackle the issue of mind and consciousness because it was either too philosophical or just too elusive to study experimentally. What actually is ‘consciousness’? How can you measure it?

What is consciousness?

Philosophers have spent centuries debating the nature of consciousness. It remains a highly controversial topic, with plenty of disagreement.

Consciousness encompasses feelings and experience, many of which are purely subjective (the sensation of taste for example, or ‘the redness of red’). These are known as qualia. A major problem for science is to understand how these experiences can arise from the brain’s raw material – the neurons, other types of cells, and surrounding fluids and intercellular ‘glue’ inside our skulls.

Scientists often talk in terms of an ‘emergent property’ – something that happens collectively that would not have been predicted on the basis of what is known of the individual units.

Some neuroscientists call the subjective element the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. Because it is ‘private’ to an individual, some argue that it is not something that we will ever be able to explain meaningfully.

More conveniently, consciousness can be likened to awareness – of one’s self and surroundings. It is sometimes divided into phenomenal consciousness (P-consciousness), an awareness of what is going on now, and access consciousness (A-consciousness), reflecting internally, drawing on past experience and memory.

Lead image:

Painting depicting Hippocrates lecturing to his students.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Psychology, Neuroscience, History
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

The science of consciousness

Man hunched over table, thinking

The science of consciousness

Consciousness is one of the last great mysteries of modern science

Zoom in on the brain, and you’ll see a dense network of cells. The vivid quality of our conscious experience – our emotions, imagination, dreams and mystical experiences – are all underpinned by a flurry of electrical activity, neurons firing and interacting in different sets of patterns. Every aspect of the mind, most neuroscientists now believe, can be explained in mechanistic terms.

Francis Crick was one of the first to propose that consciousness or awareness is underpinned by brain activity alone – what he called his ‘astonishing hypothesis’. In the 1960s he argued that neuroscientists must search for the neurons that fire specifically during conscious moments – the so-called neural correlates of consciousness.

Of course, many neurons are active when we are conscious, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily contributing to a conscious experience. One way to narrow the search is to compare a sensory system operating with or without conscious awareness (eg by using backward masking; see ‘Unconscious vision’). An alternative is to examine the impact of different types and doses of anaesthetics, which can selectively remove aspects of conscious experience.

Although not certain, there is a growing consensus that consciousness is not located in one specific part of the brain but is distributed around the brain in a kind of network. Some liken it to a virtual ‘workspace’ that draws upon unconscious neural activity all around the brain, assimilating our conscious view of the world.

This view is a little like a security guard using security cameras to monitor what is going on around a building, which is curiously similar to an early metaphor for consciousness, in which a tiny man – the homunculus – sat in the brain absorbing information from the outside world and deciding what the body should do.

Lead image:

Creative Ignition/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Cell biology, Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Unconscious vision

Illustration about the conscious and unconscious functions of the brain

Unconscious vision

How do you have an unconscious visual experience?

Vision is so important to us that it tends to dominate research on consciousness. To get at the heart of a conscious experience, we need to compare the brain’s response to consciously and unconsciously perceived stimuli. But how do you have an unconscious visual experience?

The usual trick is to apply backward masking – a visual stimulus is shown to a subject very briefly and is then replaced by a strong second stimulus. This dominates the conscious visual response, ‘masking’ the original stimulus. Subjects cannot say, or even guess, what it is they were shown.

However, psychological tests and brain imaging show that they have registered the image. If it was an angry face, they react much more strongly when shown it again than if they were seeing it for the first time – even though they do not ‘know’ they have seen it before.

Lead image:

Illustration © Glen McBeth

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Psychology, Neuroscience
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Seven ways of seeing how the brain works

Images of an MRI brain scan

Seven ways of seeing how the brain works

Approaches can be psychological or neuroscientific, animal or human – or a mix

1. Psychological studies

Assessing people’s behaviour or responses under controlled experimental circumstances.

Example: Experiments exploring our approach to risk.

2. Functional imaging (eg functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI)

Measuring brain activity during particular tasks.

Example: Revealing which areas are active when we read and comprehend language.

3. EEG (electroencephalography)

Recording brain waves through the scalp, which give clues as to the timing, locality and type of brain function.

Example: Monitoring brain activity during sleep.

4. Neuropsychiatry

Assessing the impact of damage to specific parts of the brain.

Example: Damage to Broca’s area removes the ability to speak.

5. Electrophysiology

Studying the firing patterns of neurons and their response to different chemicals.

Example: Understanding the role of neurotransmitters in memory.

6. Animal studies

Studying links between genes, neurons, brain and behaviour in animals that can be genetically engineered.

Examples: Studying neuron function in the sea slug, or neural pathways controlling sexuality in the fruit fly.

7. Modelling

Using computers to model the behaviour of neurons acting together.

Example: Modelling neural networks mimicking brain activity leading to epileptic seizures.

Lead image:

David Foltz/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Genetics and genomics, Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Sleep and consciousness

Neuropeptide receptors in the brain

Sleep and consciousness

During sleep, our brain slips into autopilot. The key change, it seems, is the loss of communication between different areas of the brain

Each day, when we fall asleep, we depart consciousness. The sleeping brain has long puzzled scientists, who have noticed that even though consciousness fades the brain remains active.

Vivid dreams are similar to a ‘virtual reality’ experience. Intensely visual dreams light up the visual cortex, nightmares trigger activity in the amygdala, and the hippocampus flares up from time to time to replay recent events. The pathways that carry signals from the auditory cortex are also active, as are the motor areas. But despite this symphony of brain activity, people still have no conscious experience.

Scientists now believe they can explain why. With the onset of sleep, the connections between brain areas weaken and the information, though present, is not integrated. So, when a powerful magnet is used to stimulate the brain specifically in the premotor area, activity spreads to the rest of the brain when people are awake but remains locally confined when they are asleep.

A similar uncoupling could explain how anaesthetics work. Recent studies suggest that neural activity does not stop, but the brain no longer integrates information from different areas of the brain.

Lead image:

Confocal image of normal brain tissue from the thalamus stained with antibodies to receptors for orexin (stained green). Orexins are molecules that help keep us awake and alert. They are produced in the hypothalamus and act through their receptors located in the nuclei of cells in many different parts of the brain. The red stain highlights the neurofilaments and the blue stain the nuclei.

MRC Toxicology Unit/Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Neuroscience, Psychology, Medicine
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Language

Lettered beads

Language

Language may have been one of the decisive factors in the success of early humans. Language skills seem to be ‘built in’ to the human brain

While it is difficult to compare the brains and thought processes of different animals, how they communicate among themselves is more open to study. One thing that separates us significantly from other species is our use of a complex verbal and written language.

Many animals are known to communicate with one another using sound, but none has developed a system as complex as human language. It encompasses features such as semantics (meaning is attached to sounds/words) and syntax (the order and arrangement of sounds/words is important).

Allowing communication and coordination of activities, and the capture of knowledge to be passed on, language has probably been fundamental to our success. What do we know of how the brain manages language?

In his book ‘Language and Mind’, influential writer and thinker Noam Chomsky said: “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence’, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.”

Chomsky developed the idea of an ‘innate grammar’ – that all infants are born with an ability to develop language. Which language they learn depends on where they are born. Recent research suggests that language skills are indeed programmed into our genes and our brain’s wiring.

For example, by studying a family with a specific language disorder, a group at the University of Oxford discovered a gene associated with language ability – FOXP2. The gene seems to be involved in the development of the brain. When children inherit a mutation in FOXP2, their brains do not wire together properly and they struggle to communicate verbally, even though most other aspects of brain function are normal. Remarkably, human FOXP2 is only slightly different from the chimp version. Although it is not the only gene enabling language to develop, it seems to have been important in human evolution.

Other areas of the brain are specialised for particular tasks associated with language. Broca’s area, for example, is important for speech. In 1861, French neuroscientist Paul Broca described a patient who had almost completely lost the ability to speak – he could only say ‘tan’ (which became his nickname). When Tan died, Broca carried out a post mortem and identified damage in an area of the cerebral cortex – which was later named Broca’s area in his honour.

Later that century Karl Wernicke found that damage to a nearby area removed the ability to understand language rather than speak it. Because patients could not understand what they were saying, patients also tended to speak nonsense (sometimes described as ‘word salad’). He got his name immortalised too, in Wernicke’s area.

A huge variety of language impairments are now known to exist – they’re collectively known as aphasia. The nature of the impairment depends on the precise area of the brain affected. Some forms of aphasia are remarkably restricted. Patients may be able to describe but not name objects, or particular classes of objects such as tools or animals. Others may have difficulties just with verbs. Others can tell the differences between colours but cannot name them.

If the links between vision- and language-processing centres are disrupted, a patient may be able to hear and understand as normal but not read. Strikingly, such patients can write fluently but cannot understand what they have written.

Although obviously difficult for patients, the extraordinary diversity of language disorders does at least provide researchers with an opportunity to find out more about the links between brain structure and activity and specific language deficits.

Lead image:

Leocub/FreeImages CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Neuroscience, Genetics and genomics, History
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development, Undergraduate

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