Joy

Next



Stuff I couldn’t stuff into the book,
but that I think is pretty interesting…

(mostly on the brain science around Joy)

Pleasure is divided into six classes: food, drink, clothes, sex, scent, and sound. Of these the noblest and most consequential is food…the pleasure of eating is above all other pleasures. –al-Baghdadi

I end my descriptions of the scientific bases for the Eight Great Goods with Joy for a couple of reasons. First, it is one of my favorite Goods and so I put it last to savor it. Second, because Joy and Life bookend all the other Goods as the two most basic functions of the brain.

Our brain is designed to keep us alive. Anything that represents potential damage to the body is interpreted as pain or fear; and naturally, we avoid it like the plague …exactly like the plague. For the most part, Life itself is the “fight or flight” part of the brain’s function. But even on the Life side of the equation, the brain gives us moments of ecstasy instead of revulsion. It has given us strong urges for sex and food. And if we don’t manage to satisfy those urges, most of us are pretty distracted and even downright miserable. But in fulfilling those basic urges, our brains have created some of the most profound Joys of life. It doesn’t take much to explain why the brain would make eating and procreating joyful. But the joys we get from other activities take a little more explanation and that is where I’ll focus this chapter.

Pain and Pleasure

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” –Jeremy Bentham (1780)

Researchers in the UK found that pain is a stronger motivator than pleasure, at least at first. In a rather complex study of 21 participants who were asked to choose one of two faces—each associated with a potential monetary reward and a potential electric shock—displayed on a screen in an fMRI machine.

The study showed pretty clearly that in the presence of a potential for pain, two parts of the brain—the ventral anterior cingulate cortex and the ventral striatum—that usually “light up” in the presence of a potential reward are not nearly as active as they would be without the threat of pain. (Talmi et. al. “How humans integrate the prospects of pain and reward during choice.” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol.29, Nov 2009)

But non-trivial pain, if it is simultaneous with pleasure, can be habituated: we get used to it. And if that pain does not increase in degree or potential lethality, our brains will accept that pain as a necessary part of the associated pleasure. In those cases pleasure wins out—which explains most cases of addictive personalities that drive themselves to painful ruin in the pursuit of their dopamine fix.

Winning and Achievement

Our brains like to win. We are designed for competition and when we do win, it makes us really happy. One recent study by Drew Bailey and David Geary of the University of Missouri (“Hominid Brain Evolution,” Human Nature, v. 20, 2009) finds social competition is a better explanation of increased human brain size than climate or ecology. In other words, a big portion of our brains was actually designed to gain status and physical advantage over other human beings. No wonder we like competitions of all kinds: music festivals, sports, game shows, reality shows—anything that involves someone winning. We don’t even have to be participating to get those effects. The reason that sports stadiums are filled is that even the fans get a dopamine hit when their team wins.

Er … but … if we like winning so much, why wouldn’t stadiums always stay full until the bitter end. Look at any sports venue; if one team is way ahead of the other, even the “winning” fans are in the parking lot before the actual win is determined.

Some of this may be explained by recent studies that show anticipation produces more dopamine than the win itself. And even if you have a near win, you’ll get as much dopamine as you do with an actual win. (Henry Chase and Luke Clark, “Gambling Severity Predicts Midbrain Response to Near-Miss Outcomes” Journal of Neuroscience, May 5, 2010) This is why slot machines are designed to show the results of the spin one wheel at a time. When we get two cherries in a row, our brains starts pumping the dopamine, expecting that third cherry must be imminent. If gambling is your favorite dopamine producer, you can near-win all day and get as much dopamine as if you had won—but, at the end of the day, you won’t have as much money.

Play

Since our brain has been designed for it, and because winning and competition are so important to the pleasure centers of our brain, it should not be a surprise that so much of what we consider “play” has a winning or overcoming-adversity component to it.

People who study play have theorized that much of child’s play is to train kids to do what adults do later in life. We are learning how to compete through playground games. But there is more than just learning how to win in our need to play—it calms us down. Mom was right when she’d send us outside to burn off some energy. Even other hominids know this. In one study of chimpanzees at a zoo in France, it was determined that both adult and immature chimps play more just before feeding time. It is known that play actually stimulates the release of beta-endorphins. The reason for play before mealtime in a zoo is that feeding time is stressful—due to the competition for food; the endorphins released during the pre-meal play time soothes the entire group of chimps. (Elisabetta Palagi, “Social Play in Bonobos and Chimpanzees” American journal of Physical Anthropology, v. 129, March 2006) Play more and, at the end of the day, you’ll be happier; but you still may not have any more money.

Beauty

While the role of play and the brain is pretty well understood, the joy that beauty gives us is still largely a mystery. Why are we happy when we see or hear something lovely—art, a sunset, music? We don’t know. According to Michael Gazzaniga in Human, the scientists have just neglected aesthetics. The Arts exist in all societies and take up a surprising amount of time and effort in ancient and modern cultures—so there must be some good reason for them … but what?

Well, there is the obvious correlate in the animal kingdom; the most visual beauty—bright colors and interesting behaviors—that we see in the animal kingdoms has something to do with sexual reproduction. There is also a correlate in human behavior: across cultures, certain facial features that are judged attractive. If biological fitness can be determined by facial characteristics, then there is a great evolutionary reason for human beauty.

And much of what we judge to be beautiful—art, dance, music, stories—has a social bonding aspect. We become part of the “tribe” when we learn how to do the dance. We use beautiful objects—objects that have very little to do with our survival—to pay homage to our gods. In the process we learn social values; stories convey the essence of what it means to be part of the group. Art conveys social connectedness—and connectedness to the divine.

Like-o-meter

One of the amazing features of our search for pleasure and avoidance of pain is how quickly we decide whether a particular stimulus is likely to bring one or the other. Once our attention is drawn to something, we decide whether to approach or withdraw in a split second. Jonathan Haidt (in the Happiness Hypothesis, 2006) calls this function of our brain the “like-o-meter” and showed that people can make the decision about whether they like or dislike a website in about .5 seconds—and the stronger the reaction to the stimulus, the faster the reaction.

The like-o-meter for our visual senses was actually mapped carefully by Cela-Conde and his colleagues (“Activation of the prefrontal cortex in the human visual aesthetic perception” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 16, April 20, 2004. 2004). They found that the cingulated cortex—the decision-maker—was first activated to decide what is beautiful and what is not. Once something is deemed beautiful, then the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex kicks in to help us create memories of those beautiful things. We like to store and be able to recall things that we like.

Music

Music, the greatest good that mortals know, And all of heaven we have below.
–Joseph Addison


Michael Gazzaniga describes the brain’s behavior when we feel euphoria and “chills.” For most of us these are associated with beauty or the divine. The part of the brain that lights up when musicians report they feel chills is the part that lights up when we engage in any Joyful activity—the hypothalamus is activated and dopamine is released. (A.J. Blood and Zatorre, “Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 98, 2001) The fact that certain music leads to these physical reactions certainly explains why music is so important in our religious activities—beautiful visual art and profound stories do the same thing.

Every society on earth has a musical tradition. There are huge differences in what different people find beautiful about music. But all people have sounds that move their souls. Psychologist Ferdinand Knobloch (http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Knobloch_95.html) believes that the sounds of music are similar to human sounds that have deep meaning for us. He points out that in any society, no one would conjure up images of a romantic interlude or a sleeping child while listening to blaring trumpets or with up-tempo drum beats. Knobloch theorizes that music serves as supernormal stimuli. Early animal behaviorists noticed that if a bird sees an egg much larger than its own eggs but with the same pattern, it will actually ignore its own real eggs in favor of the bigger object. Music may play a similar role in amplifying—over simulating, if you will—sounds to which we naturally give a lot of attention. We get a flood of good feelings because the stimulus is close enough to the real thing and, even more powerful.


Arts

Interestingly, we actually find beauty in the physical surroundings that are our norm. We store memories of those things and our intense attraction to the norm makes it easier for us to notice when something abnormal happens. This is probably a survival mechanism. When we encounter the opposite—when we find something “ugly”—our motor cortex engages. We get ready to take flight.

When we consider visual beauty, there is another wonderful and strange effect that has been passed down for millennia—from the “normal” physical surroundings of our long-distant relatives. In studies of the types of landscape paintings that people like, those with water are always preferred over those without. But when subjects were offered landscapes without water: deciduous forests, rain forests, pine forests, deserts, or savannas, American elementary school children picked the savanna. This also held true even for older subjects who were as likely to choose savanna landscapes, as they were to choose the landscape of the place where they grew up. (Balling and Falk, “Development of visual preference for natural environments.” Environment and Behavior, v.14, 1982)

One hypothesis about this is that for millions of years, the African savanna was so deeply embedded in human and pre-human thinking that it has imprinted as familiar and therefore beautiful. We find Joy in things we know; even if we don’t know we know them!

Stories

We all love a good story. No, I’m serious … we ALL love a good story. Some of the most powerful people throughout history have been those who can tell good stories—from the shamans and holy men of ancient societies to the political and corporate leaders of our modern world.

As I mentioned in the discussion of Stability earlier, our brains like to approach things in sequence. We remember sequences really well. John Tooby and Leda Comides who run the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara have long been puzzled by—and studied—our innate attraction to stories whether oral or visual.

They theorize that one of the reasons we liked—and continue to like—stories is that they helped us to organize the mass of information that we needed to master becoming the human beings we are today. Our readiness to incorporate stories is like our innate ability to learn languages. We all come equipped with “hardware” to learn languages and stories, but the “software”—the specific languages and stories—has to be downloaded after birth.

There is an oddly “competitive” aspect to our interest in stories as well. The stories we like the best are those in which we as the listeners or readers know something that characters in the story don’t know. We love information asymmetry. It is the basis of market and gambling strategies and military campaigns. And, according to one screenwriter acquaintance of mine, it is the basis of all popular movies.

He explained: “In a good film, there are two important scenes we call the ‘scene of revelation’ and the ‘scene of recognition.’ The first, usually coming at about the halfway point in the film, is where the character’s central problem is revealed to the audience. The second usually comes three quarters of the way through and it is when the character finally figures out his own central problem. When the audience (reader) is one jump ahead of the character, it creates a dramatic tension defined as a hope for one outcome and a fear of another outcome. It’s that dramatic tension that keeps people on the edge of their seats (or turning pages).”

We humans find Joy in such a wide variety of things. Almost any area of learning or behavior has at least one individual in the world that has made it their passion. Most of us are amazed by the knowledge and the skill of these people. I have a 20-something family member, Dustin, who has installed in his car a very powerful and large sound system. The first time I got into the car I expected to hear the pounding bass and rap lyrics of every other car that looks like his on the road. Instead there was a soft, almost new-agey crescendo of strings. I couldn’t place the piece as anything Classical that I knew; it was beautiful music but I had no idea what it could be. It turns out that Dustin is a movie soundtrack aficionado. He collects them and then tests his knowledge of the source film with a “name that tune” game whenever he’s in the car. Here is a guy, half my age, who has an entire catalogue of music in his head. He derives Joy from this pastime, and brings Joy to others as he wows friends and family with his knowledge of music from movies. I’m not sure he’d sacrifice his Life for this particular Joy. But he has sacrificed a lot of time and neurons to it.

2013 North Star Books. All Rights Reserved.