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The Nerve Blog


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What Is Happiness? The Blind Spot of The Mind’s Eye


You have two futures to choose from: 

1) Winning the Lottery  2)Becoming a Paraplegic


 Hm, not too difficult of a question.

 Now comparing both, after which event would you be happier exactly one year later? 

Interestingly, research demonstrates that lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives. 

In his best-seller “Stumbling On Happiness“, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert systematically investigates the reasons why.

 We are victims of something called “Impact Bias“, the tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. Everyday we consider and predict the outcomes of things (the act Dr. Gilbert coins “prospection”) like elections, romance, exams, gambling, moving to a new town, new jobs, new classes, insults, weight loss, and much more ..  In reality they all have significantly less intensity and duration than we expect.  

In fact, a recent study demonstrating how major traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness. It’s as though we’re equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.

Why? Because happiness can be synthesized. 

  “I am the happiest man alive.  I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Archilles;  Fortune hath not one place to hit me.” ~Sir Thomas Browne

Gilbert argues that we all have what he calls a “psychological immune system” , largely non-conscious cognitive processes which alter our outlook of the world for the better and shields us from mental pain. 

It kicks into gear in response to big negative events such as the death of a loved one, but not in response to smaller negative events like missing an appointment or your car breaking down. This follows that our daily level of happiness may be much more easily predicated on the little events than on big ones. It may sound absurd on the surface but Gilbert cites study after study validating it’s truth.

Without a highly developed prefrontal cortex like ours, animals are stuck living in the present. The human brain is the unique in that it is capable of imagining the future – and we love to do it. Because we’re granted the power to weigh out all of the possibilities, we can feel pleasantly at ease and in control of situations yet to come.  But we don’t do it without error. In his book Dr. Gilbert explores the psychological delusions that often distort our perception of happiness:

Subjectivity: Happiness is a subjective emotion; it is impossible to compare your level of happiness to mine. Take for example twins Lori and Reba Schappel – conjoined at the head since birth. Sharing a skull and some brain tissue, the two are forever locked face-to-face. But despite their obvious challenges, the women are playful, joyful and optimistic. Dr. Gilbert challenges the reader by asking how we would feel in their situation. Despondent, desperate, and depressed? We cannot accurately judge.

A prominent medical historian wrote “Many surgeons find it inconceivable that life is worth living as a conjoined twin, inconceivable that one would not be willing to risk all – mobility, reproductive ability, the life of one or both twins- to try for separation.” Apparently it is common knowledge that the life of a conjoined twin is so horrible and worthless to make dangerous separation surgeries an ethical imperative.

Imagination works so quickly , quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.

Realism:  When we look at an event either backward into our memory, or forward into the future we fill in the blanks. However, as we envisage the future , the details of those events that we don’t imagine we simply treat as if they were not going to happen.   

Page 97:  “we do not outgrow realism so much as we learn to outfox it, and that even as adults our perceptions are characterized by an initial moment of realism.” … “we automatically assume that our subjective experience of a thing is a faithful representation of the thing’s properties. Only later—if we have the time, energy, and ability—do we rapidly repudiate that assumption and consider the possibility that the real world may not actually be as it appears to us.” … “We believe what we see, and then we unbelieve it when we have to.”

Someone might be invited on a tropical cruise but because of a particular bad experience on a boat, or a memory of someone else’s experience (either a true or fictional story), they could have the expectation of a week of sea-sickness, overcast skies, turbulent waters and everyone in a general state of discomfort and dissatisfaction. They might ignore the reality of the beautiful, warm sunshine, sipping margaritas on the deck, and dancing under the stars.

The brain is hard-wired to emphasize the details it observes and remembers, and to not notice what’s missing.

 Presentism: The way we feel at the present moment greatly influences how we feel about the future. After stuffing your face at a holiday banquet, can you accurately envision how delicious the seafood curry will be at that Thai restaurant next week? The brain can only process specific senses one at a time. When visualizing something we use the corresponding area of our brain. Sights, sounds, tastes. This is why we block our ears if we need to remember a melody. The same goes for emotions; we can’t sense two different feelings simultaneously. Just because something makes us grumpy today doesn’t mean it will make us grumpy tomorrow. Obvious on the outset, but unconsciously we usually ignore the rule.

Rationalization: Imagination cannot accurately preditct how we will think and feel about the event once it actually happens. To disambiguate experiences, we create biased facts to explain why we think something will happen.

To put into further context, researchers asked volunteers, “definers”, to write down their definition of talented, and then estimate their talent based on the definition. Other volunteers, “non-definers”, were given the definitions the first group had written and were asked to rate their abilities using them as a guide. Definers believed they were more talented; they had the freedom to define the word exactly the way they wised, usually in terms of something they happened to excel in.

Although the two extra questions on the bottom card —- “Who are we?” and “Why do we do this?” —- provide no information whatsoever, they do give one the sense that puzzling questions have been posed and then answered. The results of the study showed that the people who received the bottom card were, in fact, less curious and less delighted twenty minutes after receiving it than were people who received the top card because only the latter felt that something wonderful and inexplicable had happened.

Gilbert asks “How do we manage to think of ourselves as great drivers, talented lovers and brilliant chefs when the facts of our lives include a pathetic parade of dented cars, disappointed partners and deflated soufflés?” “The answer is simple: We cook the facts.” And if talent has a host of different meanings to different minds, then any experience from getting a promotion or failing a test can have endless reasons for happening.
Corrigibilty:  We often mispredict how things we have already experienced will feel when they happen again. Often we judge the pleasure of an experience by its ending- and ignore the most prevalent emotion during the majority of the event. Take childbirth, in which women usually misremember as being not quite so painful as it actually was. The miracle of holding their beautiful child after just arriving into the world dominates the memory.

And we make this mistake all the time. Gilbert claims we “expect the next car, the next house or the next promotion to make us happy even though the last ones didn’t and even though others keep telling us that the next ones won’t.” The effect works the opposite way too; a recent break-up may have been emotionally scarring enough to make one decide to give up on the opposite sex for a real relationship. Meanwhile they’re forgetting about the happiness the experience brought them during most of the time spent together.
 Gilbert’s argument essentially is that in order to have optimum happiness, we trick ourselves. It’s an innate process that allows us to see the world through rose-colored glasses. “If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning,” Gilbert writes. “But if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers.”

 What he wants to ultimately leave us with is this:

“Of course some things are better than others. Winning the lotto IS better than becoming a paraplegic. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another.

But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have over rated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully.

When out ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, steal, sacrifice things of real value, destroy. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, we’re thoughtful.

When unbounded, and overblown, we’re reckless and cowardly. Our longings and our worries and both o some degree overblown because we have with us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constant chasing when we choose experience.

Beauty and Brains: Defining Attractiveness

In the late 1870s, scientist and eugenicist Sir Francis Galton developed an image of the prototypical “face of crime” by creating composite photos of men convicted of serious offenses.

Average Criminal

The middle face is the product of 14 criminals.

Though Galton failed to discover anything abnormal in his composite criminal faces, he did find that the resulting visages were shockingly handsome. Studies have since established that people find prototypical faces—those with average features—to be the most attractive.

– Maggie Wittlin, Seed Magazine

There’s no doubt for an instant- this guy you see strutting past you on the way to work is stunningly attractive. It would be absurd if we had to stop and consider a person’s appearance, taking into account of all their features (“Hmm let’s see now for a moment; He has a nice smile, a chiseled jaw, an even nose.. ok, he must be good-looking.”) before we came to that conclusion. We instinctively know what appeals to our aesthetic sense. The tricky question arises when we ask what defines physical attractiveness. Why do we like the faces of a glamor models more than the faces of Plain Janes and Average Joes?

Current research sheds light on the beauty mystery. It reveals to us that attractiveness is hardwired in the brain of the beholder.

Though we may be inclined to think that we hold unique preferences, psychological experiments in which participants rate appearance produce almost universal results. Statistically people of every race and age (even babies of 3 months) agree on the prettiest face in a given group. Interestingly, humans can also agree on the attractiveness of monkeys. Sidestepping the boundaries between societies, cultures, and even species, we have to ask;

What exactly is going on?

A part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, located in the back of the temporal lobe, plays an important role in recogni zing familiar faces. When its neural pathway is damaged, a person is unable to identify friends and family, and cannot distinguish between pictures of regular and beautiful faces.

Scientist Dr. Marquaadt developed a mathematically proportionally map of facial symmetry to measure beauty.

Contemporary psychologists have taken Dalton’s technique to create average facial proportions leveling out asymmetry and irregularities in structure. The blending removes blemishes and other skin imperfections that gradually disappear causing the skin to appear extra smooth.

Both faces mixed creates more attractive features

An attractive face is easier for our brains to analyze and process in the fusiform. This smooth progression of cognition may in fact establish our fundamental idea of beautiful face. Studies demonstrate that when we perceive a face of an individual that we judge as attractive, we are subconsciously assessing his or her vitality and well-being. Facial symmetry,  skin smoothness works as one of the best observational indicators of good genes coding for healthy development and fertility.

composite of 5 girls above

However, most of us will refuse to believe that ascertaining physically attractiveness is wholly objective. Obviously we often disagree with each other on whether that guy or girl we saw on the way to work was totally hot or just ‘whatever’.

There are many other brain areas corresponding to factors such as characteristics of personality. Our unique brains decide what constitutes mate compatibility specifically for us- though many centers correspond to the physical traits we ourselves see as pleasing, many other brain regions respond to characteristics of personality. The final verdict is set when we take into account all attributes such as behavioral mannerisms, communication, temperament, interests, and convictions- and verify if they are personally desirable.

Though the standard for physical attractiveness might mainly be a corollary of primal brain functioning, real “Beauty” is still a concept that artists, authors, philosophers, and the Average Joe grapple to explain.

“Some people, no matter how old they get, never lose their beauty – they merely move it from their faces into their hearts.”
~ Martin Buxbaum

“My Brain Can Easily Process Your Face”

crime” by creating composite photos of men convicted of serious offenses.