Everyone wants to be happy, and there are a million and one tips, mantras, books and belief systems that are supposed to give you a helping hand — for a price, of course. And with one in five Britons suffering from depression, it’s no wonder that we’ll pay up. But even if you think that you’re doing OK in the happiness department, the question still remains; how can you be absolutely sure you’re not faking it?
Nonsense, you’ll say — we can never be sure about what’s going on between other people’s ears, but I know my own mind, damn it! Well, if current trends are anything to go by, your privileged perspective might be under threat from an objective standard, thanks to brain science.
Last year it was filmmaker Brent Hoff who utilised a Stanford university neuroscience lab in the name of his ‘Love Competition’. A sample of people from various walks of life were asked to “love someone as hard as they can” or to contemplate love itself, whist their gray matter was monitored by a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The person who generated the most activity in areas of the brain associated with love, won. Simple as that.
So for at least some intents and purposes, MRI scanners are mind-reading devices. MRI works by quantifying the distribution of blood flow within the brain, which is then used as evidence of mental activity corresponding to particular areas of the brain and their known functions. If parts of your left-frontal lobes are receiving increased blood flow, we can say with some conviction that you’re engaged in a language task. If your primary auditory cortex is popping off, that’s because you’re processing sounds, and so on. Apparently this extends to love and happiness, and you have to ask, why wouldn’t it?
So what can neuroscience tell us about happiness? Conclusions from EEG (Electroencephalography) and fMRI studies by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, lend additional support to the claim that mediation is the true key to happiness. A Buddhist monk and author of ‘Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill’, has astounded researchers with his ability to generate levels of gamma waves never seen before in neuroscience. Gamma waves are correlated with higher cognitive processes associated with happiness, such as consciousness, attention and learning. When asked to meditate on compassion, Matthieu Ricard’s brain went into super-awesome happiness mode (or what ever that is in brain terms). A neurological performance that has lead some to suggest that he could be the happiest man in the world.
So how would you fare under the scanner? Are you at least curious? Brain studies like this get behind what we tell ourselves about ourselves, and right to the neurological evidence. It’s been called ‘neuro-realism’; the attitude that the more neurological evidence for a mental state, the more real that mental state is. And If you think this is all a bit much, consider a comment made by the Love Competition film maker, Brent Hoff, “The guy who lost, who came in dead last, was probably the happiest of anyone; he realised he wasn’t in love with his ex-girlfriend. He walks out of there with his arms raised, triumphant.”