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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.

The Ghost in the Machine: Consciousness, Computers, and Philosophical Zombies

Can Machines Think?

If you were to have a regular online conversation with one live person and one computer simulating human dialogue, would you be able to determine which dialogue was human?

(This program is called ‘The Turing Test’) To this day, no machine has reliably fooled anyone.  But if one computer was developed to converse in a way that was indistinguishable from a human being, could we say that it has the capacity to think?

We must consider that there are fundamental differences between a mind and a machine. This advanced computer may be able to reply with coherent responses and engage in a discussion only because a human programmed into it a “representation” of human experience (i.e. information about what people do in certain situations). But no matter how much knowledge you provide a program, it will never share the same kind of conscious understanding that makes human beings unique. Though programs possess the rules for language, they do not comprehend it’s meaning.

John Searle proposed a thought experiment called ‘The Chinese Room’ that challenges the idea that a machine with appropriate inputs and outputs can understand in the same way a mind would (the position deemed ‘strong artificial intelligence’). Locked in the room, Searle is given three sets of Chinese writings- a “script”, a “story”, and “questions”. The writings are slid under the door, and Searle is then given instructions in English to correlate the excerpts and respond in Chinese by identifying symbols only by their shapes.

To Searle, Chinese characters are just “so many meaningless squiggles” The responses he gives are impossible to differentiate from those of a native Chinese speaker. In this way the room as a unit functions the same way as a programmed computer, and passes the Turing Test.

"The Chinese Room"

Although the program can manipulate symbols to convey something meaningful to a mind reading its outputs, there is no meaning of the words to itself. There is no intentionality. Human thoughts, unlike AI systems, have semantics.

One may still question, “What about an artificial, man-made machine”, assuming it is possible to produce one with a nervous system identical to ours? John Searle argues that only special kinds of machines, namely, human beings, have the capability to produce what we call consciousness. He maintains that the brain is a “biological phenomenon”, with the “causal powers” to have intentionality. And if we can, as Searle says, “duplicate the causes”, we can thereby “duplicate the effects” . However, philosopher David Chalmers provides evidence against this assertion, demonstrating that conscious experience “is not logically superveniet on the physical”.

There is something “it is like” to have consciousness.

The experience is more than mere brain structure, it is something irreducible- something impossible to understand in terms of our current knowledge of the physical world. Let us take Chalmer’s thought experiment, the example of the “logical possibility of zombies”. These zombies aren’t the mentally inept and flesh-hungry beings we see in the movies, rather, philosophical zombies are creatures identical to ourselves down to the atomic level.

My “zombie clone” processes the same information, and performs the same behaviors as me. She looks out the window and sees green trees and a blue sky and tastes the sweetness of an apple. She can hold an intelligent conversation, reporting the contents of internal states, and perform complicated tasks. However, though she can physiologically perceive the way I do, she cannot necessarily conceive the way I do.

Which is the zombie clone? Can you tell if someone has conscious awareness?

The zombie lacks the qualia, the inexplicable ‘mental feel’, of all these sensations.

The point of the argument is that the possibility of philosophical zombies is “conceptually coherent”, and so the existence of conscious experience is not dependent on thefacts of “my functional organization” or physical structure. An opponent may argue that a thought experiment such as this is an “imperfect guide to possibility”, and therefore not relevant. But we can look at the “phenomenon of a posteriori necessity” to see the connection between the two. We can’t imagine H2O not being water, but we can conceive of water not being H2O- and a zombie world is conceivable in the same sense.

My zombie clone cannot experience qualia. She may know all of the physical principles of light, and every physiological fact about the effects of this 460 nm wavelength hitting the eyes. But the zombie does not know what blue is, the same way a personwho was born blind cannot know. Frank Jackson speaks on this notion in his scenario, “What Mary Didn’t Know”, in which Mary, a neuroscientist/physicist, was raised in an environment completely absent of color.Even if Mary knew every single aspect about the physical processes in the brain of the color red, she would never possess the knowledge of what it looks like. No knowledge of physiology or light frequency would ever allow one to differentiate between the experience of red and the experience of green. The facts of qualia are not physically reducible, and therefore neither is consciousness.

For consciousness to be explained, it would have to entail an entirely new set of laws apart from the known physical laws; it would would have to supervene on some different, unknown properties. As quantum mechanics demanded new sets of rules apart from Newtonian physics without interfering, Chalmers argues that the fundamental laws of consciousness will still be “natural” but different than the physics we know. He states “For physics to explain consciousness would take something extraordinary… but in the end [quantum mechanics] is simply not extraordinary enough.”

“How are we aware we have consciousness?”

“How do we know other human beings are conscious too?”

What Mary Didn't Know

We all have a main intuition within us that “there is something to be explained”. How could we question question the nature of consciousness if it didn’t exist? We obviously must be aware that there is some phenomenon at work. This knowledge however, can only come from ourselves. The idea can only be aquired he through first-person experience- through our own minds.  We can only recognize our own thinking, and sense our own emotions; we can introspect. But we can only derive an idea of another person’s mental state through their actions. We cannot readily observe it from the third-person perspective.

This poses a challenge, since it has been established that we cannot obtain mental facts through objective study, which would include observation of human behavior. Nagel says that if “the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one viewpoint, then any shift to greater objectivity [takes us farther away from the] real nature of the phenomenon.”  It brings us all the way back to Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” skepticism.

There is something "it is like" to experience RED

How can we know that the other bodies around us aren’t just “philosophical zombies”?

One might simply conclude that other people have thoughts because they function in similar ways. Some use the argument from analogy to verify the consciousness of animals; since like us, they seem to experience pleasure and pain. Descartes believed otherwise- that animals were only machines as they cannot express anything with syntax (Knowing of the advanced technology of today perhaps would have altered his theory). But behavior is not sufficient to assure the presence of cognition, because the supposition is based on only one case- the individual who speculates the problem of other minds. It is invalid induction; it may just be that you are the only one with a mind, and therefore cannot impose this quality on anyone else.

Descartes says we can only attribute mental states to ourselves, but how do we do this in the first place? Empiricist John Locke says we learn through experience. A child learns the meaning of fear, for example, only when it also learns what it means for someone else to be afraid. To have a mind assumes interaction with other minds.

He says  “When children have, by repeated sensations, got ideas fixed in their memories, they begin to learn the use of signs and speech to signify their ideas to others”.. The meaning of the sensation of fear to the individual is learned when accurately applied to oneself and others. Without other minds, the qualia of the emotion does not have meaning at all.

In order to have communication, people must have the same experience of certain sensations. For example, if I refer to New York City, we both agree on the actual, existing place rather than a mere image of the city in my mind. Locke claims “It is the actual receiving of ideas that gives us notice of the existence of other things, and makes us know, that something doth exist at that time without us”

(Less tangible experiences such as the experience of colors however are a bit more difficult: The word “blue” receives its meaning because of its association with our sensation upon seeing the color, but since, as Chalmers claims, we can conceive of a world in which my sensation of “blue” is really what your sensation of “red” is, we can never prove against this possibility. What remains important for language is our concurrence about distinct experiences no matter how we perceive them individually)

The idea that animals, incapable of spoken communication, are only machines, has been largely abandoned. Looking at the implications of the belief, it would entail that we have no ethical duties towards any non-human creatures. A dog’s yelp would just be an automatic, ‘programmed’ response to pain. Most people immediately reject this notion. We believe that though animals don’t have the intelligence to use syntax in communication, they do have semantics. A dog can has understanding when you show it a leash and intentionality when it barks for a treat. A machine on the other hand, having the mechanized intelligence to form syntactic phrases void of semantics, is just the opposite. Human beings are the most unique case- with the benefits of both syntax and semantics.

The technology of today may make the Turing Test seem quite unsubstantiated, for in this age we have the capacity to create machines that mimic even the most complicated of human behaviors and expressions. Nonetheless it will never be enough. Even if a ‘zombie twin’ was to be artificially created- it cannot be deemed conscious.

The foundation of awareness and understanding- the exact source of what gives rise to qualia- is yet a mystery, and perhaps someday the problem of consciousness can indeed be solved by some extraordinary ‘new physics’, or what Chalmers calls “a very different sort of explanation, requiring some radical changes in the way we think about the structure of the world”.

~can you hold the belief all we areour character, loves, fears, convictions, aspirations, and sense of identity– is in fact just part of a grand biological program- merely a product of many complex chemical reactions occurring in out brain..?~

…Or does the presence of this mysterious human consciousness entail we are something more; something greater, and unknown; The “Ghost in the Machine”




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.