Is happiness a skill? Modern neuroscientific research and the wisdom of ancient contemplative traditions converge in suggesting that happiness is the product of skills that can be enhanced through training and such training exemplifies how transforming the mind can change the brain.
The Neuroscience of Happiness
Sven Hackman: Good afternoon everyone, please take your seats. We’ll get started. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Sven Hackman, and I’m the Vice President for the US Cities program with in Seaman’s. It is my pleasure to introduce the next discussion, which will focus on the neuroscience of happiness. I have to admit, when I was first offered the opportunity to introduce the topic, I was a little bit stunned. How on earth do I make the link between city infrastructure development and this?
Well, since 2007, more than half of the world’s population, about 3.3 billion people, live in cities – a number expected to swell to almost 5 billion people by 2030, or 9 billion people by 2050. So, clearly, the challenges presented by sustainable urban development are immense. To provide you with some data points, cities are responsible for around 75 percent of all energy consumed, 60 percent of all water used, and 80 percent of all greenhouse gases produced worldwide.
So, today, Seaman’s is advising several city governments around the globe on how to make use of worldwide best practices and technologies in this regard. To do a shameless plug, I invite all of you to join us at 8:30 AM just across the hall at the Seaman’s pavilion, also known as The Gym, for the first US/Canada Green City Index. We worked with The Economist intelligence unit, EIU, to evaluate 20 cities in the US and Canada to look at their work in sustainability and environmental performance.
Now, I know that building city infrastructures does not seem to have much to do with neuroscience or happiness, but we can all relate how very important it is to have the right environment around you and a strong sense of community. At the end of the day, quality of life and happiness are all tied to a sustainable city. With that, I’d like to introduce the moderator, Professor Daniel Gilbert.
Daniel Gilbert: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Daniel Gilbert: I’m Dan Gilbert. I’m very pleased to be moderating this session on neuroscience and happiness. Last year, I co-wrote and hosted a television series for PBS called This Emotional Life. I’m on camera, and I say this line. I say, to the audience, “You and emotions like love, anger, and happiness, are generated deep within the brain.” The director yells, “Cut, cut, cut.” I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “Typo. You mean heart, right?” I said, “No, dude, not heart. Brain. The brain is where emotions happen.”
But the brain isn’t just the location for happiness, what we’re learning about the brain and how it generates emotions is teaching us not only about emotions, but about the brain itself. It’s one of the greatest sources of mystery, and we’re about to have a lot of that mystery revealed today by two of the best neuroscientists in the world, Kent Berridge and Richie Davidson. Delighted to have them here.
Kent is the James Kent Berridge. To my far left, is James Olds Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Kent has spent his entire career studying the neural basis of pleasure, especially the distinction between wanting things and liking things. I can tell you, from experience, studying this distinction in human beings is hard enough. That wasn’t hard enough for Kent. He studies it in rats, who make the distinction between liking and wanting. If you know how to ask them, they will tell you.
I invited Kent – I must say, I organized the conference between psychologists and economists about a decade ago, I think, in Brussels. The whole idea was to get economists to see how important psychology was for economics. I invited all these great psychologists and one neuroscientist. Ken came and talked about the rat brain. I asked the economists at the end, “What do you think? Does psychology have a lot of promise for your discipline?” They said, “Ehh, yeah the psychology stuff was all right, but that rat stuff. That’s important.” Who knew?
My friend Richie Davidson is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Richie has, if you know anything about neuroscience, you know he has almost singlehandedly pioneered the study of meditation and the brain. One of my favorite photographs is of Richie lugging a magnetic resonance imaging machine up a mountain in Nepal so that he could scan the brains of monks as they generate love and kindness. It’s only one of the many things in our discipline for which Richie is famous.
I was not at all surprised, but impressed, when in 2006, Time Magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world. I suspect, since then, many of those other people have died, so you’re even more influential. You may be among the top 94 or 93, something like that. In any case, it is my pleasure to be hosting this. I’m so excited to hear from both of you. Our plan is for each of these gentlemen to talk for 15 or 20 minutes. We’ll have a very brief discussion, and then invite all of you in. Kent, if you’d start us off?
Kent Berridge: Thank you, Dan. I know Richie and I are delighted to be here and very grateful for all the Aspen hospitality, and also, especially for Dan’s efforts in organizing the happiness track as well as moderating these sessions. We don’t yet have a neuroscience of happiness in a full-fledged sense, at least not in the sense that we have a neuroscience of memory or vision or pain or hunger, in the sense that we could draw upon hundreds of studies and tell you about results on the neuroscience of happiness. We don’t yet have that.
But we do have a neuroscience on relevant facts about brain mechanisms of pleasure and generating of hedonic states and brain mechanisms of need. I’m going to focus mostly on pleasure and hedonic states. I think Richie will be talking about meaning networks. In the domain of hedonic neuroscience, I’d like to really just talk about two ideas today. The first idea is, as Dan said, we have, in our brains, a very ancient and deep network for generating hedonic feelings.
This network evolved for sensory pleasures, for selfish pleasures, but it’s been co-opted by our evolution. It participates in all of our pleasures, quite likely, even in sustained well-being – the positive affect of happiness for those who have it and when they have it. The second idea I’d like to talk about –as also Dan mentioned – is the notion that wanting and liking the same pleasure are very different from the brains point of view. So different that it has different systems for wanting and liking the same pleasure.
These also evolved together, and it’s a very good thing that they go together. But sometimes, they can come apart from each other. It happens in addiction, in extreme cases, and it can happen in all of us sometimes. That can lead to a recipe for unhappiness. Those are the two ideas I’ll talk about. To start, maybe it’s best to just consider what’s the relationship of pleasure to happiness? It’s a topic that’s been discussed several times already in the happiness track. One can answer, if we pose the question, “What’s the relationship between happiness and pleasure?” An answer came from Freud, long ago.
This is actually a quote I took from Dan’s book. Freud says, “The answer to happiness is pleasure, pure and simple. That’s what people want. They want to be free from pain and displeasure and they want to experience strong feelings of pleasure.” For Freud, happiness was merely pleasure. But in this track, on the last two days, we’ve heard again and again that happiness is more than pleasure. There’s all the other aspects.
There’s the eudemonic of meaning and life engagement of compassion for other and love in life. Both are important in happiness – eudemonia and hedonia. I can only talk about the hedonic brain mechanisms of happiness. Both occur together quite often, it seems, as a matter of fact, in happy people, they go together very often. Those who are happy are reported to feel both kinds. Drawing on studies by Ed Deaner at the University of Illinois, who sort of pioneered a lot of the wellbeing research.
In his studies, eudemonic satisfaction, 80 percent of the people sampled rate that their life – they’re pretty satisfied to very satisfied with their accomplishments and meaning in life. Eighty percent of them also report that they have a happy, hedonic mood. Again, pretty happy to very happy. Both are important. When Marty Seliban told us yesterday about the permasystem – positive affect – the P in PERMA is pleasure and hedonics. It’s the positive affect. The rest of it – engagement, meaning, accomplishment in life – that’s the eudemonic aspect. But today, for this moment, pleasure.
An important point about pleasure is that it comes from within. It comes from within us. It’s not just a part of our experience. It’s been mentioned a couple of times in the track that happiness researchers like to draw upon the notion that paraplegics have been reported to have fairly good life satisfaction. Just a few months ago, an even more dramatic case of happiness free from external constraints was reported in locked-in patients. Locked-in patients in a study done in England. Locked-in patients of the sort depicted in the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – the French movie.
Locked-in patients may be entirely paralyzed to the extent they can move only an eyelid or not even an eyelid, maybe only an eye – vertical movements of the eye up and down. Yet they can communicate if they pose questions. They can use those movements to communicate. If asked how they feel, the results of the study on locked-in patients was that over 70 percent of these patients reported their sense of wellbeing as positive three on a hedonic scale between minus five to positive five.
Positive three corresponds to a rating of very well, although they’re entirely paralyzed and can move only an eye. Very well. It lies between well, which would be two on the scale, and four, which would be almost as good as the best period in my earlier life before I developed the locked-in syndrome. It’s the symptom that develops from a brain lesion usually in the brain stem that blocks all movement – all movement – but leaves cognition and consciousness and sensation all intact. As kind of a demonstration of the hedonic resilience that we have, and maybe a demonstration of the hedonic immune system – the affect immune system that Dan has written about in his book.
The idea is that this from within hedonic state – The idea is that it comes from very deep brain circuits. That’s something I’d like to spend a couple of minutes on – very deep brain circuits. People may report sense of wellbeing, but they’re not quite as happy as they could be, at least not many of us. There may be ways to maximize that happiness. The brain systems that generate hedonic states are there, but they’re not operating at their fullest all the time. Moments can activate these circuits. Sensory pleasures of food and drugs and sex. Human cognitive pleasures of humor, winning money, seeing the face of your loved one, your child, or your spouse. Abstract pleasures like art and music. Social and moral pleasures.
All have been reported to activate these same brain systems that evolved, originally, for sensory pleasures. That can be studied, even in animals. That raises the possibility – This is the hypothesis. It’s not a fact, but the hypothesis extrapolating from that that the same brain mechanisms for sensory pleasures and abstract pleasures, momentary pleasures, could be called upon to generate the sort of sustained, more frequent sense of wellbeing that isn’t tied to a particular event, but that pervades all events, or as a free-floating state that allows us to be content and happy in this room, more happy as we leave or go home, or driving, or as we meet someone new.
That kind of wellbeing that engenders a hedonic moment could call upon these brain circuits. I say it’s not a fact because we can’t point to studies that will prove this, but we can extrapolate from what we know. I’d like to tell you a bit about what is this circuit. Here’s a bit. In the brain, there are deep, looping circuits that go from the top of the brain, the cortex, down to the very, very deepest center of the brain. We could perhaps divide the parts and the functions into three simple functions. One function is to code pleasure.
The whole system codes pleasure. It lights up whenever we’re in a state or moment of hedonic pleasure. The pre-frontal cortex is especially good for lighting up with coating pleasure. Another function is to cause the pleasure. There’s a little difference between coding and causing the pleasure. We’ll talk about that in a moment. Deep structures cause the pleasure with names like nucleosocumbance and ventral paladin.
The third is to want the pleasure that we like. The brain dopamine system that starts very, very deep in the mid brain and goes up to the front, is a generator of want – and we’ll talk about that. So, one at a time. First, coding pleasure. Maybe to make a concrete example – the taste of chocolate so many of us like codes pleasure beautifully. It codes changes of pleasure, the frontal cortex. A person who tastes a bit of chocolate who loves chocolate, will light up their orbital frontal cortex. As they get full, if they eat several bars of chocolate, and it begins to become – Oh, you feel just a little queasy and the chocolate isn’t quite so good. The cortex goes down.
It’s coding the pleasure. But there is a difference between coding a pleasure and causing that pleasure. The brain, as a general rule, has more codes than causes. Only few of the brain sites that light up and code the pleasure actually also cause the pleasure that it’s coding. The other sites are doing their own thing, causing their own thing, causing attention to pleasure or memory of the pleasure or thoughts about the pleasure or conscious savoring of the pleasure in various ways. But the actual generation of the pleasure itself, that’s restricted to a few sites.
We have to manipulate the brain, or rely upon natural manipulations, or medical manipulations that have been done to see what in the brain is causing pleasure. So the first thing is the cortex may not be causing our pleasure. The top of our brain may not be causing our pleasure. Pleasure may be caused really deep within. One very old but massive fact is that thousands and thousands of people lost their frontal cortex, their pre-frontal cortex, between the 1930s to the 1960s through the operation of pre-frontal lobotomy, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
And in that operation, the frontal lobe, or the pre-frontal lobe, is either removed or severed so it’s no longer connected to the rest of the brain. And afterwards, as has been pointed out, studied beautifully by Antonio Demasio and his colleagues, risky decisions are made by a person who’s lost their pre-frontal cortex, but pleasures remain after cortical loss. Sometimes, even new pleasures come in because the person is socially inappropriate or makes risky, bad decisions in many cases and finds new socially inappropriate pleasures. There are very dramatic samples, too, in people.
Some, very few, but dramatic examples such as occasional children who are born congenitally with out any cortex at all. Severe hydroninsephile is one example, where a child can miss virtually the entire cortex. The brain develops normally below, but not with the cortex. Yet a child like this has been reported – you can see the brain and you can see the emptiness of where the cortex should be, at the top of the skin. Childs reported to still smile when spoken to by family and caretakers. To giggle when played with.
These human interactions of positive affect were more intense than, and qualitatively different from, other positive affects to things like favorite toys and music. We’re seeing, in the photograph, him responding to music and cooing and making facial expressions. So the pleasure may arise, at least be generated, below the cortex. That’s almost surprising, that the very deep, ancient brain is generating the pleasure. You can find the pleasure causers, the pleasure generators in the brain. I want, in a minute, just give a quick example of an experiment that finds the pleasure generating network, the kind of research that can be done there to find hedonic hotspots, which are pleasure generators deep in the brain actually causing pleasure.
A sample experiment would be to tweak the brain, turn it on in one place in one kind of neuronal system, an opiod system. Tweak it with a painless microinjection. This can only be done in animals, so we’ll have to address the hard question that Dan raised. But we can find where tweaks enhance the pleasure of a sensation. How to ever know, in a rat, whether a brain tweak has enhanced the pleasure of sensation. The rat can’t tell us a thing.
Well, of course, human infants can’t tell us a thing either but parents and grandparents may have a sense of when the infant likes, say, a sweet taste and doesn’t like another taste. Here’s an infant on the first day of life, a human infant who will get a sweet taste – a squirt of sugar water in the mouth. Then, we’ll see a rat getting a squirt of sugar water. Then, we’ll see a human infant getting bitterness. We’ll see the rat do the same.
Here’s the infant. Just got a squirt of sugar water and sort of ___ juice. Here’s the rat from underneath. Sugar water’s being infused into its mouth painlessly through an oral __ __, we’re seeing these tongue producers. Have to slow it down, because the rat moves so fast, but we can see it, from underneath, the licking of the lips to the sugar that it likes. Now, here’s bitterness. Gapes. Scrunching of the eyes. We get a sense that that’s a very different hedonic experience.
Here’s the rat getting bitterness and gaping. The rat can’t scrunch its nose and eyes – it doesn’t have the musculature – but it can gape and flail its paws and shake its head and do a number of other things. The point is, if we tweak the brain and we change displeasure to pleasure, we can change the gaping reaction to bitterness into a sweet-like reaction. We can make nice things nicer. We can make nasty things less nasty. Sometimes, make nasty things even nice. But there’s very few places in the brain that can do this.
Here’s an example. Where it’s in orange, we’re seeing painless microinjections. Each little splotch is a microinjection, the size and shape of it, that’s activating some neurons where the microinjection is. But the color of the microinjection is its consequence. This is a causal map. It’s not a neuro-imaging map of coding. This is a causation map, where the color is showing the psychological effects switching those gaping reactions to bitterness into a sweet reaction and increase in the liking reactions to an already sweet taste where it’s red and orange, that it can do. That site is the front orange site in the deep brain, and there’s a couple other hedonic hotspots in the brain that can cause pleasure.
They’re all interconnected. They work as a network – fragile – but they call on each other as a network. When one comes on, it calls on the other and the other calls on, too. If we were to stop one from coming on, the enhanced pleasure would go away. It’s a fragile network. It needs all to come on. It needs unanimity in the network in order to cause an increase in pleasure. There’s several spots, as I say, an encumbrance of ventral palladium.
They use a couple of neurochemicals to cause this. One is natural heroin opiods that the brain makes. Another is natural marijuana and the cannabanoids the brain makes and releases to create these pleasures. The circuit function as a whole. But all of that was pleasure. Remember, the notion is that system, when activated, in fortunate people, might also be the generator of hedonic, sustained happiness that makes not only sweetness nice, but makes life nice, if one could activate it in a more frequent or sustained manner.
The last idea for me to mention is the wanting versus liking idea. With this hedonic generating circuit, there’s other components. One famous component you may recognize is dopamine, long thought to be a pleasure generator in the brain. Dopamine, a pleasure generator. It turns out, on closer look, that it’s not a pleasure generator. It’s a reward generator. It helps to generate reward. But reward is complicated.
Pleasure’s just one part. Wanting for the pleasure is another part that dopamine generates almost exclusively – and not the pleasure goal. There are dramatic examples. There’s a couple of very dramatic examples of false pleasure electrodes that would have turned on this system to activate the brain mesolimpic system, and there’s many examples in society, perhaps, in addicts today who have wanted without liking. I’ll give the very brief, classic pleasure electrode that perhaps isn’t a pleasure electrode. These were implanted first in the 1960s.
They’re still going on in brain simulations today, but the pleasure electrodes are electrodes that were implanted when a person had button box much like this slide. Controller. You could press the button and turn on your pleasure or turn on your electrode. One of the most famous patients was B-19, a young man implanted with the electrode. He would stimulate the button box over 1,500 times in a single three hour session. He’d protest, “Just a few more, please,” if you tried to take the stimulator away.
It was apparently a pleasure electrode, and it was reported to produce feelings of alertness and warmth and goodwill. He had feelings of sexual arousal, also. These electrodes and turning on the system often turns on motivation, whether it’s for sex or food or drugs or other things. It produced, in him, a compulsion to masturbate. But was it really pleasant, this electrode? You know, he’s never actually reported as saying that it was. He’s never actually reported as saying, “That feels nice,” when he pushed the button. There aren’t exclamations of pleasure.
The electrode never substitutes for a real pleasure, like sex. It only, when it’s on, makes him want the sex more, just as it makes him want to push the button more. It’s an odd psychological experience. There may be many thousands of people, or more, who have something approaching this, because of something that can happen in the brains of some addicts. This is the notion of incentive sensitization.
Everybody probably knows that drugs of abuse can activate brain systems, including some one to us you may know, that __ brain dopamine systems. But it’ll only activate those systems. In some people, they can permanently change the systems and crank them up. Not all the time. The systems aren’t cranked up all the time, but they are cranked up in a way they can be turned on in a hyperexpressive way to release more dopamine than normal.
When the drug is taken again, or when cues for the drug are encountered again, this is neuronal sensitization of the dopamine system, produced in vulnerable individuals – not everybody is vulnerable – produced by high doses and produced when the doses, especially, are taken in binge like fashion. Sensitization. The crucial thing about dopamine sensitization is that if it’s produced, once it’s produced, it doesn’t go away when the person stops taking the drug.
This change can last for years, even in animals that live only a couple of years. It may last a lifetime. It may contribute to relapse later, these wanting kind of system. I’ll stop and just say – This has been talking about – I should say, that is, of course, a recipe for great unhappiness. This sensitized wanting system. To want and even to obtain what is wanted isn’t necessarily going to turn on the pleasure liking. This, if it happens, can happen again, and again, and again.
Dan’s work, for example, has shown that many people can want things inappropriately, miswant things, based on false expectations and false theory about whether they’ll like it. But this system, once you have sensitization of this wanting system, you can persistently miswant even once you know, even once your theory has that opportunity to be corrected. So stop. Eudemonia is the big question, and I can’t even address it. I think that Richie will.
But I can say that the brain hedonic networks I’ve mentioned connect to the networks that have been proposed for having concepts of self in relation to other concepts of meaning in life. Hedonic circuits activate that. So we don’t have a neuroscience of hedonic happiness yet, but we do have a hedonic neuroscience of pleasure that may be relevant to understanding happiness. It suggests a few insights, perhaps. Namely, that pleasure is generated very deep within the brain by an ancient system, when it happens, but that may be called upon in the fortunate, degenerate, true, hedonic wellbeing. Pleasure wanting is a separate system, and that can lead to great unhappiness. Pleasure links to circuits of meaning.
It may be possible to map some of this neuroscience onto concepts of happiness, such as, “Is happiness a state of sustained liking or wellbeing without any wanting to disrupt and torment us?” That can be conceived in neuroscience terms. “Or is it a sustained wellbeing in hedonic pleasure in daily life with a mild activation of the dopamine wanting system, that can make people attractive and places attractive and events attractive and give us a zest to life?” Too much, of course, would be unhappy. Or is it something else? Well, that we can only think about. Thanks. Thanks very much.
Dan Gilbert: Thanks. Your turn.
Richie Davidson: Okay. Thank you, Dan. Thank you all for coming this afternoon. I want to begin today with – if we can have the slides on – a very brief autobiographical interlude. Just to situate what I’m about to describe, I was in graduate school in the 1970s at Harvard. I had the great fortune of, in addition to the wonderful mentors I had as faculty, to encounter people outside of the academy whose demeanor and whose presence and whose very infectious wellbeing was something that was very attractive to me.
Now, one of the things I learned about these people that they had in common is they all had a connection to and an interest in meditation and spiritual matters. This kindled, very early on in my career, an interest in this subject. I was sufficiently interested that after my second year of graduate school, to the consternation of some faculty, I went off to India for the first time and had a taste of what this kind of practice actually did for me and for myself. I came back with great enthusiasm and with a conviction that these were methods that were very important for western psychology and neuroscience to take account of.
It was very clear that the zeitgeist in that day was not sufficiently receptive to pursue this kind of research at that time. So it took many years for this to all come full circle. Then, in 1992, I had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, His Holiness, the Dali Lama. I met with him at his residence in India and that was a meeting that I think is fair to say changed the course of my life and of my career.
The Dali Lama was quite forceful and said, “Look, you guys are using the tools of modern science to study qualities like anxiety and fear and depression. Why can’t you use those same tools to study qualities like kindness and compassion?” There wasn’t really a good answer, other than the fact that the study of kindness and compassion is hard. It was hard when we began to study fear and anxiety, and I think there has been very good progress in modern neuroscience and psychology in the understanding of those constructs.
So I made a commitment on that day, to the Dali Lama, that I was going to do everything I could to help put these kinds of positive qualities on the scientific map. It took us a number of years to ramp up, but that really brings us to the present. I want to tell you one other little story about what happened during one of my early visits to the Dali Lama in India. We were sitting around. This is directly germane to the focus of the theme on happiness that Dan so beautifully put together.
We were sitting around in a very informal moment, and I was with this Japanese scientist who was very interesting Japanese scientist, and he leans over and says to the Dali Lama, “Your Holiness, can you please tell us the time in your life when you were the most happy?” I thought, “Gee, that was a really interesting question. I wonder what this answer is going to be.” And just like that, without pausing, the Dali Lama said, “I think right now.”
So that was a very important lesson for me about what his understanding of happiness was and the capacity for happiness to be not a state, but a trait that is an enduring quality. Something that also might be cultivated through training. I want to first begin with some of our more mainstream work. One of the ideas that we have been studying in the laboratory is this idea of what we’ve called affective chronometry, which simply refers to the time course of emotional responding.
We’ve been interested in tracing networks in the brain that are associated with these issues of time course – which I’ll explain in a moment. One of the things that is compelling to me about this notion of time course is that when we think about differences among people and how they respond to life’s slings and arrows. A lot of it has to do with the time course for emotional responding. So people who we consider to be very resilient in the face of adversity, they’re able to recover quicker.
So this idea of faster recovery following adversity. There are also individuals who can savor and show an enduring expression of positive emotion based upon having some experience, for example, in the morning, if they reflect on the things in their life that they’re grateful for, it may color their entire day. That kind of longtime course for positive emotions and short time course for negative emotions is something that we can actually interrogate with modern technology and concepts in neuroscience.
I’ll give you one very, very recent example. This comes from a large study, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging, which is focused on wellbeing in aging. We have the opportunity to bring a subset of these individuals into our laboratory. One of the things that all of these people are given, and this is a representative example across the United States, one of the things they’re given are these questionnaire measures of wellbeing. These are some items that reflect what Kent introduced as eudemonic wellbeing.
So, for example, people would describe me as a giving person willing to share my time with others. Most people see me as loving and affectionate. I am an active person in carrying out the plans I set for myself. In general, I feel confident and positive about myself. Those are some examples of these items. We were interested in whether individuals who report themselves as displaying these high levels of wellbeing have a signature in their brain that reflects an enduring and longer-duration of activation in brain circuits that are important for at least aspects of positive emotion. That’s one more item.
I made some mistakes in the past, but I feel, all in all, everything has worked out for the best. One of the areas in the brain that Kent mentioned – deep within the brain, the neurosuccumbins – is an area where we find that sustained activation over time, not pungtate activation but sustained activation over time, is associated with these reports of naturally occurring wellbeing. This just shows a scatter plot that indicates that those individuals that have more sustained activation in this brain region are also reporting higher levels of wellbeing on this index that reflects, primarily, eudemonic wellbeing.
So this is a picture of the first time the Dali Lama visited our laboratory in Madison in 2001. He is here in the MRI control room. He’s made a real inspiration and has been extremely interested in the details of this work. With his encouragement, we began a very unusual study, in 2001, where we’ve brought very long term practitioners of certain kinds of meditation practices that are explicitly designed to enhance eudemonic wellbeing. We brought them into the laboratory and we’ve interrogated their brains to see how their brains may have changed in response to this kind of mental training.
So one question which you might ask is, “What does compassion have to do with happiness?” I want to just share with you a couple of quotes. This comes from the Dali Lama, and he said, “From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of wellbeing becomes. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities you may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we may encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.
So this is really the seeds of why we were so interested in understanding more about what is going on in the brains when these practitioners were generating compassion. This is a scientific example. This was a paper published by some social psychologist. It was posted in Science a couple of years ago. I just underlined one or two sentences. The abstract, where they found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness and participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.
Again, suggesting that even using purely trivial kinds of manipulations that can be done in a laboratory, you find that being generous to others actually helps to promote happiness in oneself. So we began the study of the voluntary cultivation of compassion to see how that is affecting the brain, and we began in a very simple-minded way where we had these long term practitioners, who spent years training their mind, come into the laboratory and alternate between these conditions where they’re in a neutral state and in a state of generating compassion. They just cycle between the neutral and the compassion state.
In the words of one of our practitioners who was sitting in our audience, who’s been a prominent member of the happiness theme this week – Mathieu Ricard – he said that what we have tried to do for the sake of the experiment is to generate a state in which love and compassion permeate the whole mind with no other consideration, reasoning, or discursive thoughts. Now, you know sometimes those commercials on television, where it says in fine print underneath, “Don’t try this at home”?
In contrast to that, I would encourage you all to please do try this at home, but don’t be frustrated if your mind is not able to focus in a way where there’s no other consideration, reasoning, and discursive thoughts, because at least if your mind is like my mind, our thoughts and our minds are pretty chaotic. There’s lots of stuff happening. But one of the virtues of working with these very long term practitioners is, at least by their own report, they’re able to do this even in a really strange environment of our laboratory. So we have found that there are differences in brain electrical signals.
This is a figure from the very first paper that appeared on this study. What it shows is that the oscillations that we record from the scalp surface are visibly different. You don’t need fancy computer methods to extract these signals. You can see if you look at the difference between the resting state and the meditation state, something is different in the brains. These are gamma oscillations that are fast in frequency – about 40 cycles per second – and are seen in situations where different elements of a percept bind together in a normal brain. They’re typically seen for much shorter periods of time.
Here, we see them over much more extended periods of time. This is a picture of Mathieu after he’d been in the scanner for more than three hours. I can guarantee you, having done thousands of MRI studies, that most participants don’t look like this when they come out of the screening.
Richie Davidson: So we’ve used these methods to learn what is changed in the brain during these kinds of practices. I don’t have a lot of time to go into detail here, but there are big changes that we see in a whole circuit that has been linked to such qualities as empathy, for example. This is a slide where you see the brain image. The area that’s circled is an area called the insella, which is very interesting part of the brain because it’s the only part of the brain that has a map of the visceral organs in our body. It literally is the place in the brain where the information about the body is conveyed to other parts of the brain.
Also, the brain has the opportunity to control those parts of the body. What we see is that, in long term practitioners, when they’re exposed to sounds that depict human suffering – sounds of a woman screaming, for example, or a baby crying inconsolably – this is an area of the brain that is dramatically enhanced in terms of the magnitude of the signal. Compared to novice practitioners, who are just learning these kinds of practices. Now, we also see other areas of the brain that are modulated by these kinds of practices.
This slide is showing an area that’s called the temporal parietal junction, it’s in the back of the brain at the intersection between the temporal and the parietal lobe. It’s in the area that, in other research, has been linked to perspective taking and has been very important in research on empathy. One of the questions which is very frequently asked is, “Well, you know, these are long term practitioners. The average number of hours that these practitioners have spent training their mind is about 34,000. A big number. Most people who lead conventional lives are not going to dedicate that kind of time. So do short amounts of practice make a difference?”
This is findings from a very new study where we asked whether just two weeks of practice in otherwise meditation-naïve individuals can actually produce a discernable change in the brain and behavior. We had 30 minutes a day of practice for just two weeks and we randomly assigned participants to either a compassion training group or to a group that learned to promote wellbeing through cognitive reappraisal, cognitive therapy.
One of the most empirically well-evaluated psychological treatments for depression and other kinds of negative affective disorders. We had two weeks of training. They practiced. They did the training over the internet. We delivered the training through a protected website that they logged onto for 30 minutes a day. Let me just share with you, very briefly, the elements of the compassion training for those of you who are not familiar with this kind of training.
We first ask people to visualize different categories of individuals. While they’re visualizing, to contemplate a time in their life of those persons when they may have been suffering. Then to cultivate the strong wish that they be free from that suffering. They begin this with a loved one, someone who may be a very close family member or a very, very close friend. Visualize a time in their life when they may have been suffering and then cultivate this strong aspiration that they be relieved of suffering.
We then have them move on to themselves, where they do this practice for themselves. Then we have them move on to another category that we call a stranger, and what we mean by stranger here is someone who’s face you recognize. It may be a person who works in the same office building as you that you see on a regular basis, you can recognize them, but you really know very little about their life. It may be a neighbor who you really haven’t stopped to talk to very much. You really don’t know very much about them. Visualize them and visualize a time in their life when they may have been suffering, and cultivate that same aspiration.
The next category is a really, really important category, and that is a difficult person. Bring to mind someone who really pushes your buttons, who makes you angry, and go through this same process. Visualize a time in their life when they may have been suffering and cultivate that aspiration that they be relieved of suffering. Then we have them move on to all beings. They use a phrase that they repeat silently in their mind, like, “May you be free of suffering. May you experience joy and ease.” They’re instructed to notice whatever visceral sensations may occur as they do this.
They’re instructed to feel the compassion emotionally and not to simply repeat these phrases cognitively. Now, the way we did this study is we randomly assigned people to one of these two groups, but first, we do an MRI scan to look at their brain function before they are randomly assigned to these groups. They then go through two weeks of training. We do a second MRI scan. We also give them some tasks that are economic decision-making tasks, to assess their level of altruistic and cooperative behavior. I don’t have time to talk about the details of that, but it’s a way for us to measure pro-social behavior in a hard-nosed way to see if this training makes a difference.
What we see is that after two weeks of training, the folks who were assigned to the compassion group are, in fact, behaving more altruistically. Remarkably, there are systematic changes in the brain that are produced after just two weeks of practice. What’s particularly interesting is that the extent to which their brain changes for the group that has been assigned to the compassion training group predicts how altruistic they behave on this economic decision-making task.
What is displayed here is two specific regions of the brain – the prefrontal cortex and the amygdale. The prefrontal cortex, in this area, showing enhanced activation over time of training. The amygdale, which is an area that’s particularly important for detecting threat, is an area which is decreased over time. Actually, in Jonathan Haight’s talk over the last period in this room, someone asked him a question about neurological differences between liberals and conservatives. Jonathan mentioned the research showing that conservatives were, perhaps, more responsive to threat. Their threat system, if you will, is at a heightened level of activation or acuity. Amygdale is the key component of that circuit. This kind of training is tuning down the amygdale, whether it makes people less conservative, we don’t know. We’ve not tested that.
But there are also changes in other parts of the brain, including the nucelosucumbins I talked about earlier. I’m going to end here and refer you, if you have more questions, to the website of our new center, The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. It’s www. investigatinghealthyminds.org – you’ll find a lot more information about our work there. These are the folks that actually do the studies, who I’m deeply grateful for on a daily basis.
I’d like to end with one of my very favorite quotes. This was written by Albert Einstein in 1921. He wrote this in a letter to a friend of his who is asking for some advice about his daughter that was really suffering. Einstein said, “The human being is part of a whole, called by us the universe. A part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Thank you.
Daniel Gilbert: Gentlemen, thank you. Those are wonderful talks. I’ll ask a question, and I don’t know how we’re set up for Q&A. Do we have microphones stationed around? We have roving mics. Okay, great. Well, while you begin to rove, let me ask a question. I listened to both of your talks and something occurred to me that kind of fell in the cracks between them. My theory of wanting and liking was always you want things, then you get them, then you like them, then you want new things.
That’s what the consumer society is about. Wanting and liking go hand in hand. But I remember when I was first introduced to our friend Mathieu Ricard. He was sitting back there. We were having dinner. I know enough about Buddhism that it’s about getting rid of the wanting. He was going after the cheesecake with great gusto. I kept thinking, “He sure looks like a guy who wants to me.” What you might be suggesting is, “No, he’s a guy who likes.” Well, he may be able to give up wanting without giving up liking at all. It made me wonder if the practices that you study – do we know whether they have this kind of effect? Am I just making stuff up and bringing you guys together where you don’t belong?
Richie Davidson: Well, I’ll be happy to take a first stab at that. I think that one of the key attributes of wanting is expectation and anticipation. One of the things we’ve been directly studying is the period prior to an incentive – either to a positive incentive or a negative incentive. If there really is a decrease in this wanting system, where there is a preservation of the liking, what we might see is – in these long term practitioners – reduced activity during this period of anticipation, but normal or even perhaps enhanced activity during the period where the stimulus, if you will, is actually delivered. The incentive is delivered. The early findings that we have, they’re not fully cooked yet. We’re actively working on this. Certainly are consistent with that conjecture.
Daniel Gilbert: Let me get this straight. I want cheesecake and he doesn’t, but when he gets it, he likes it more? This is not fair.
Daniel Gilbert: But that’s what you’re suggesting.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, it is.
Daniel Gilbert: It’s not a fair world. Kent?
Kent Berridge: I’d absolutely agree with Richie, that the notion – When we say we want something, we usually mean we expect it and we expect it to be valuable and pleasant when we get it, therefore, we like it. That’s what we mean. At the same time, our brain is doing that. In a perfect world, we would expect what would make us happy. We would work and obtain that and it would make us happy.
But at the same time the brain is doing that, it’s doing other things, I think. Even wanting itself can fragment into a couple different kinds of things. The notion of expecting something to be good – that’s what we’re consciously aware of and it’s great to know the cortex activates in concert with that. That mesulupic dopamine system that’s driving a kind of wanting, it’s usually going, I think, with this expectation so the ____ activates in Richie’s studies. But it can separate, possibly, from the expectations, too, sometimes.
There are human cases where the dopamine wanting can occur in the absence of an expectation, almost an unconscious wanting. There are other cases where you can kind of pull it apart. You expect one thing, something not to be good, for example, and yet you might want it. The addict can fall into this type of situation. So I think there’s a complexity with that.
Daniel Gilbert: Why does nature build that complexity? If you asked me to design an animal, I’d say, “Make it want sex. Make it want food. Make it be satisfied when it gets what it wants.” We’re not designed that way. Any thoughts about why?
Kent Berridge: I think we’d all agree. That’s the way we should design the brain, and if anybody had consulted us, that’s the brain we’d make.
Kent Berridge: Evolution has been a slow process, always adding things on, adding things on. So what’s there first, stays. Evolution isn’t going to take it away, but it adds on. So we have new capacities as we add on, and that’s marvelous, and new opportunities. But what was there, is still there, usually operating in concert with what’s new. But it still has its old rules. Every once in a while, those rules jump up and sort of hit us in the face.
Daniel Gilbert: So wanting came first?
Kent Berridge: The old wanting came first.
Richie Davidson: I think that, in humans, we see the evolution of the prefrontal cortex, which is this huge mass that is greater in size in humans, relative to the rest of the brain mass – at least in particular regions – than any other species. One of the things that has allowed us to do is to do mental time travel so we can anticipate the future, we can recollect in the past, which gives us many advantages, but it also has some disadvantageous byproducts.
Humans have the capacity to regulate their emotions in ways, I think, that are probably far more nuanced than any other species, but we also can disregulate and mess up our emotions in ways that are much greater than other species. The incidence of psychopathology in humans is clearly much greater than it is in any other species, in part because of the hijacking of this prefrontal system where we get ourselves into trouble so that we end up wanting things that turn out not to be particularly beneficial.
Daniel Gilbert: I know I want an umbrella or a friend with an umbrella.
Daniel Gilbert: Let’s open up the floor to questions. We’ll bring the microphones around. Sir, in the front? Let’s get a microphone to this gentleman.
Audience: Gentlemen, thanks for doing this. My name is Chris Gates and I’m from New York. One of the things I know that I want is I want to be right. I’ve discovered about myself – I don’t like this about myself, but I’d rather be right than eat.
Audience: Even when I’m wrong, I’m right about that. So is that an amygdale attack? If that happens, should I just quarantine myself until it goes away? How do we deal with that? How do I deal with that?
Richie Davidson: I think that the cortical system that we have in humans allows us to put a wedge, if you will, between the wanting system and our actions that may be based upon it. We can actually notice – and this is one thing that the meditative practices actually teach a person to do. The process of wanting, or urges, or cravings, will arise. But if you can cultivate the capacity to just notice them instead of having them hijack you, then they eventually will change and subside. I think it’s a way to change one’s relationships to wanting. That implies, also, changes in how different networks in the brain interact, which I think is impacted by the kind of training I was describing.
Daniel Gilbert: There’s a wonderful book by Catherine Schultz, called Being Wrong and It’s Written For You. The microphone to the madam with the white shirt.
Audience: I’m curious what you think about people. We all know people who view life through the glass-half-empty lens – a little cynical. Sometimes they exhibit those characteristics from a very early time in their life. Do you believe that is learned behavior, or something is different about their brain chemical state?
Kent Berridge: We can imagine it either way, I think. We can imagine it both ways. If it’s true that that primitive liking pleasure system generates a sense of life half full or more than half full, that system is just ready to be tuned by genes. There are many genes we can imagine that would change it, just as drugs temporarily change it. At the same time, it’s not an encapsulated system.
Nothing in the brain is. It’s always interacting with our experiences, and it may well be that the kinds of practices Richie is exploring and that we heard about in earlier sessions could change the capacity of these systems to be engaged on a daily basis by mundane invents, which is something I think we all aspire to.
Richie Davidson: Just to add to that, I think it’s likely both heritable contributions as well as experiential and environmental contributions. Kent showed the wonderful video clips of the infant and the rat in response to taste. We actually did a study a number of years ago – it was published, I think, in 1986 or 1987 – with newborn infants. These are newborns 72 hours of age. We introduced tastes of that sort and looked at their brain function to look at how these different facial reactions in the newborn period are associated with different patterns of brain function.
One of the things you see, even in neonates 72 hours old, is a lot of variation consistent with your ideas. Even though, on average, most infants do have this normative response to a sweet taste and a kind of disgust expression to the bitter taste, there’s a lot of variation. Whether that variation actually predicts subsequent temperament – I’m actually skeptical, and I think increasing amounts of evidence suggest that particularly in the pre-adolescent years, there’s a tremendous amount of change. Who you are as a neonate is not necessarily who you’re going to be as a young adult.
Daniel Gilbert: Great. Can we get one microphone to the gentleman in the blue shirt right there? While we’re doing that, can we get a second microphone to anyone who has a question – the gentleman in the yellow back there? Ready?
Audience: I have a friend that has a bionic implant in his brain because he has Parkinson’s Disease and it’s helped his personality. Would you recommend that we all do that to make ourselves better people?
Kent Berridge: So the technology that we have today isn’t something that we’d all choose unless we had Parkinson’s Disease. The kind of changes in mood and sometimes changes in motivation – sometimes changes in urges to do things that can happen with deep brain stimulation and with some of the medications for Parkinson’s disease where people suddenly have urges to do all kinds of things that they didn’t before, or more intensely. That’s not something we probably choose.
But we can imagine a perfect world in which techniques like Richie and Mathieu discussed, or an imaginary perfect world in which it was possible to reach in, fine tune, and produce the desired outcome in the neurons. You can imagine that world in which one could turn on a hedonic system and raise the pleasure in life. Possibly adjust the wanting and zest of life. You can imagine that. Whether that’s ever actually going to be possible, well, we can’t foresee that with the techniques even on the horizon. We can imagine.
Daniel Gilbert: We’ll go to the gentleman who has the microphone and pass the other microphone to this gentleman here.
Audience: You’ve identified the pleasure center of the brain. Is this also the displeasure center? In other words, is pleasure and displeasure on a continuum with a volume control? Does that at all relate to bipolar?
Ken Berridge: I think that’s a fascinating question. We don’t fully know the answer. We know part of the answer. Part of the answer is brain sites that create pleasure aren’t always the same sites that control displeasure, but some of them are. So in the nucleosuccumbins hotspot, for example, you turn it on – pleasures get better. If a lesion happens, the _____, pleasures don’t go away, they just go back down to a certain low, normal baseline. In other parts of the brain, like the ventral palladium, if we turn it on and create enhanced intense pleasure, if its lesion, nice becomes nasty. Sugar becomes bitter and aversive.
This is a lesion that can be produced in studies in rats. It’s not something that’s going to often happen to a person, because of the placement of the ventral palladium. People who have that lesion would be usually obliterated, but there are a couple of cases where selective damage to the ventral palladium uses this great dysphoria and sensory pleasures like drugs or foods – which once were sought after very much – become less pleasant for that person. It is in the report.
Whether it’s the cause of things like bipolar disorders or other affective disorders, that’s an open question. It could be the cause. That’s the potential relevance of these kind of facts. Whether it actually is the cause, I don’t think we have that answer.
Richie Davidson: If I could add one more piece to that, I think it’s the case – I don’t think most scientists would disagree with this – that particularly complex qualities like eudemonic happiness as well as bipolar disorder are not going to be isolated to any single part of the brain. These are more complex networks. They’re instantiated in distributed systems.
One of the things that is true about all of the regions that Kent has been talking about is that they’re very densely interconnected. They’re actually part of an extended circuit. There is a lot of interaction among those different parts of the brain and interaction between those parts and certain cortical regions. I think that ultimately, it’s going to require that we take into account that whole circuit rather than the individual spots.
Audience: I was most struck by how compassion-based mediation causes permanent change in the brain – increased centers you were talking about reminded me of when The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes. I was wondering if the reverse was true. If, like addiction, long-term selfishness causes damage to the pleasure centers of the brain. In other words, is there any evidence for the plot of Citizen Kane?
Richie Davidson: I think it’s a wonderful question. Let me first correct what may have been a misunderstanding. I wasn’t suggesting that compassion mediation, from the studies we’ve done, produces a permanent change in the brain. We don’t know whether it does or not. But I think that your intuition is exactly right. I think the deleterious environmental influences will have – and have been found to have – a negative impact on the brain.
One of the things that we study, in addition to the positive side of life – We’ve been doing this study of brain functioning structure among maltreated kids. These are kids with documented maltreatment. Not just the function of their brain, but the structure of their brain is demonstrably altered by these kinds of experiences. I think the answer is absolutely yes. In a very recent study, from a group at McGill University, they’re actually using brains following suicide among a group of maltreated individuals.
They actually have found epigenetic changes in the brain, that is actually changes in the regulation of particular genes that are, in specific brain sites, important in the modulation of negative emotion. These are, I think, important clues that this works in both directions.
Audience: Thank you very much for sharing all your data and ideas. A couple of quick questions. One is, “Can you please comment on left-brain, right-brain differences?” Cause I noticed in a number of the functional imaging studies, there seemed to be hemispheric differences – perhaps they even extend into the sub cortex and brainstem. It’d be interesting to know.
The second part is a little bit of a philosophy of language question. Much of what we’re talking about, in terms of our internal states, is ineffable. If you are training someone up on an economic decision-making task, you’re engaging the language module where it never actually really plays in moment-to-moment, everyday life. Could you comment a little bit on the methodological issue pertaining to engagement of language in these sort of non-linguistic, internal states as well?
Richie Davidson: They’re great questions. To answer them briefly – In terms of the left, right business – For a good part of my career, I studied, and still do to some extent, hemispheric differences. We’ve reported, in many papers, that individuals who, at baseline – that is, not during any instructed task – just while they’re sitting and resting, individuals who have greater activation in certain left prefrontal reasons report higher levels of wellbeing and are happier on certain self-report measures.
We’ve interpreted that as these individuals having a more engaged approach motivation system, or more activated approach motivation system. These are the kind of people who may be the sort that when they get up in the morning they’re ready to be positively engaged with the world. Those qualities are temperamental qualities which don’t necessarily map onto the full spectrum of eudemonic wellbeing that I’m describing. I can tell you, as a group, that long-term meditation practitioners do not have extreme levels of left prefrontal activation.
It’s an interesting dimension, but it doesn’t exactly map onto this. Your second question about language, let me just say that one of the reasons why we have been interested in the project of working with long term practitioners is based upon a conjecture. The conjecture is this – that these are individuals – let me just say, the word ‘meditation’ in the Sanskrit – one of the Sanskrit translations – literally means familiarization. These are individuals who could be said to be very familiar with their mind.
As such, those individuals may be more accurate reporters of what’s going on in their mind compared to others who don’t spend a lot of time actually engaged in that kind of systematic introspection. On that conjecture, one might hypothesize that those individuals should show tighter relations between their reports of experience and measures of brain function. In fact, in some of our work, it’s exactly what we’ve found.
It’s not true for all dimensions, but for some dimensions, particularly those dimensions that they are accustomed to reflecting upon, they are the ones that show these very tight associations. I would say that even though yes, it’s true that it is a very different kind of dimension, they’re still able to provide reports which show some – in certain cases very high degrees of – association with objective measures of the brain that we can obtain simultaneously.
Daniel Gilbert: These will be our last two questions. Sir?
Audience: Today is the first time I’ve ever heard about compassion meditation. I’ve only known of meditation. So are there different types of meditation? Are they all effective? Is there compassion meditation, which is a very specific form of meditation, and where do you learn it? My other question is –
Daniel Gilbert: We’ll do one if we can, cause we’re out of time.
Richie Davidson: Sure. Very briefly, the word ‘meditation’ is kind of like the word ‘sports’. There are many different kinds of sports. Some are more solitary. Some are more done in groups, more active. There are hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, but one we’ve described – We’re trying to come up with a researched based typology of different kinds of practices.
We’ve distinguished among three kinds. One is the kind that involves very focused attention. A second is a kind that involves what we call ‘open monitoring’, where the field of awareness is much broader. The third kind we call ‘positive affect training’, which is where the compassion meditation would fall. Their practices are explicitly designed to promote certain kinds of positive affect.
Daniel Gilbert: For our final question – Ma’am?
Audience: I have a question. I just watched a teenage daughter of mine conceive of a future for herself, choose it, then spend a year giving up all kinds of gratifications in order to bring that future into her life. I’m really interested in – What is that system’s relationship to the wanting system that allows us to really conceive a future and bring it forth with very much warranted, longer term series of actions?
Ken Berridge: I’d imagine that system is much related to the kind of mindfulness system that Richie and Mathieu also pursued – the notion of bringing the want under the control of larger plans and better plans. The kinds of system that Richie is studying are, I would hope, the kinds of systems that achieve that control.
Daniel Gilbert: There will be more psychology and happiness at 5:00 PM. Until then, I hope your brain is as excited, wanting, and liking as mine.
Daniel Gilbert: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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