This morning I came across something quite delightful: Hatchet Job of the Year, an award for the most scathing book review. Novels, poems, they all get their awards, but really cutting book reviews have been underappreciated, except in the privacy of one's own study, or the office we share with colleagues or fellow grad students. I was especially struck that one of the reviews, Suzanne Moore's epic takedown of Naomi Wolf's Vagina: A New Biography, attacked her for a simplistic use of neuroscience:
she bangs on about dopamine and oxytocin, "the cuddle chemical", choosing studies which back up her theory that women need a lot of stroking and eye-gazing for great sex. It's all very wholesome....
Yet again we see neuroscience in the hands of the layperson being fused to very determinist ends. Thus neural pathways are formed, chemicals just do one thing, hormones rule.
Now, I've complained about how neuroscientific research has been appropriated in writing about computers and addiction, and how too many authors have mistaken "neuroplasticity" for a synonym for "technological determinism." I suspect that one thing that's going on is that authors are riding two trends: work on happiness, and neuroscientific research that's focused on what goes on when we satisfy cravings, or are pleasantly surprised by something. In other words, because scientists have been doing research on happiness and addiction, popular writers focus on that too.
But what about more complex cognitive phenomena? Or moral ones? When I think about my own experience, I notice that I have a couple different kinds of desires and satisfaction, and I'm not sure that studies of rats, bars, and dopamine hits explains all of them.
I have relatively some simple cravings: hunger, for example, or the desire for a fancy new camera, or the desire to see if someone has posted anything on Facebook or retweeted my latest post. Each is a pretty straightforward desire, and each is easy to satisfy.
Then there are things that I find deeply satisfying that are far from simple; are rewarding not because they're easy to satisfy; and have taken me a long time to learn to appreciate. I go to the gym regularly, but I don't like the gym or working out: I don't love the elliptical machine, or doing crunches, or lifting weights. What I do like is how I feel the next day, and proving to myself that I can do something difficult. (I do like the sauna, though.) Likewise, writing my book was neither a simple exercise, nor were its rewards simple: yet I can confidently say that the satisfaction I feel at having written it will exceed any pleasure I'll ever get from a meal. Being a good husband, being a responsible father, maintaining a sense of honor: all of these matter to me, and I work at all of them, but I can't say I enjoy them the way I enjoy the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland, or enjoy a plate of sushi. They're closer to flow than simple pleasure.
I know there's some work that's being done at the intersection of neuroscience and morality-- Joshua Green's lab at Harvard, for example, or the Neuroscience and Morality group at Oxford-- but I don't think there's yet a neuroscientific explanation of the feeling of deep satisfaction that you get from doing something hard but enduring, or having sacrifices pay off, or of maintaining a sense of balance and proportion in chaotic times.
To put it another way, we have a pretty good understanding of the neuroscience of simple kinds of happiness, but I'm not sure we have a similiar understanding of the neuroscience of meaning.
This piece by Emily Esfahani Smith on the work of Victor Frankl and the conflict between happiness and meaning helps illustrate what's at stake. For those of you who've never encountered the man or his work, he was a friend of Freud's, a brilliant psychologist and physician in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s-- which means you can guess where the story goes:
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished -- but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning.
Smith connects this with recent research on happiness, and the apparently conflict between a happy and a meaningful life.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want.... Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior... [Someone who prioritizes happiness is more likely to be] a "taker" rather than a "giver."
"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers write.
As they put it, "Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided."
To bring this back to the neuroscience issue. It's not that hard to construct experiments that give people an opportunity to satisfy desires for happiness-- assuming happiness is defined in pretty straightforward material terms-- and to watch the brain as it responds to those situations. But it's a lot harder to do that for meaningful activity.
We shouldn't take the absence of an equally voluminous body of research on the neuroscience of meaningful activity as a sign that it's not worth studying, or not important. We shouldn't write that way, and we absolutely shouldn't live that way. But if we only follow what's going on in the lab, and try to extrapolate from lab studies of dopamine and oxytocin to real life, we're going to end up with a still-too limited understanding of ourselves.