Weekly Round Up




Laughter with friends releases endorphins, the brain's "feel-good" chemicals

Laughing with friends releases feel-good brain chemicals, which also relieve pain, new research indicates.

The Wellcome Trust has published a report providing reflections on the field of human functional brain imaging (fMRI).

UCLA life scientists have identified for the first time a particular gene’s link to optimism, self-esteem and “mastery,” the belief that one has control over one’s own life — three critical psychological resources for coping well with stress and depression.

Managing other people at work triggers structural changes in the brain, protecting its memory and learning centre well into old age, according to research from the University of New South Wales.

How the brain controls impulsive behavior may be significantly different from psychologists have thought for the last 40 years. That is the unexpected conclusion of a study by an international team of neuroscientists published in the Aug. 31 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

And finally this week, research conducted by Boston College neuroscientist Sean MacEvoy and colleague Russell Epstein of the University of Pennsylvania finds evidence of a new way of considering how the brain processes and recognizes a person’s surroundings, according to a paper published in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience.



Weekly Round Up

The brain has an inbuilt sense of justice

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience,  New Scientist is asking the question of why we remember some dreams but not others? And Live Science takes a look at the top 10 mysteries of the mind, while a new study from the Karolinska Institute and Stockholm School of Economics shows that the brain has a built-in sense of justice.

The Telegraph reports on how brain scans reveal the power of art while researchers in Oslo and Sweden revealed that musicians’ brains are highly developed in a way that makes the musicians alert, interested in learning, disposed to see the whole picture, calm, and playful. The same traits have previously been found among world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation.

How does fear alter memory? A new study reveals that it can literally change our perception, a process that may help researchers better understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders and possibly conditions like autism. Dr Melanie Greenberg has also been looking at PTSD and the complexity of its mind-body effects and how our brains process trauma.

Emotions are habits – so pick up a good one

Part 3 of Your Brain and the Art of Happiness

All emotions if practised regularly grow in size. The Dalai Lama continually suggests that we cultivate the positive and like any good habit – you start off small but the end benefits are great. A positive state of mind is not only good for you but it also benefits everyone you come into contact with. 

Practise makes perfect 

No matter how difficult it is you must reduce your negative states of mind and increase your positive ones. The Dali Lama suggests that the occurrence of wholesome actions as against unwholesome actions is not a matter of morality or religion. It is the difference between happiness and unhappiness. Through self-training you can develop a good heart that lessens the chances that you will act in an unproductive way. 

The nature of happiness 

Don’t confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure is of the senses and seems like happiness but lacks meaning. Happiness in contrast rests on meaning and is often felt despite negative external conditions. It is stable and persistent. While pleasures are a bonus in live – happiness is a must! 

Happiness is not an overnight success 

Happiness is something to be developed over time. Make a decision to apply the same effort and determination that you might devote to worldly success to studying and practicing happiness. Systematic seeking after the causes and ways of happiness can be one of life’s most important decisions – like deciding to get married or embarking on a career. The alternative is drifting in an out of happiness by chance, vulnerable to unexpected attacks of unhappiness.

 The ups and downs of happiness

 The student of happiness will experience ups and downs but will be better equipped to get back to a positive state more quickly. Over time you must try to cancel out negative emotions particularly anger and hatred and replace them with tolerance and patience. The Dali Lama’s approach of cancelling out negative thoughts with positive ones has been validated by the rise of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which gets people to replace distorted modes of thinking such as ‘my life is a mess’ with more accurate ones such as ‘this part of my life is not good but a lot else is.’

 The nature of individual unhappiness

 The Dalai Lama admits that people are complex but that the western way is always to find the causes of things which he suggests can lead to a kind of agony if we don’t find an answer. We will not necessarily understand why life plays out the way it does within the scope of our lifetime. This view partly comes from his belief in reincarnation and karma but can be appreciated separately to Buddhist doctrine.

How does this philosophy fit with findings from neuroscience?

So  how does this philosophy fit with findings from neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain? I suggest that it is precisely because we may not understand everything about our existence – it is all the more important to be good to other beings and to leave the world a slightly better place. With this simple command we can unite science with humanity and know we can’t go wrong.



How to create a happiness state of mind

Image: Mind Mapping.

Welcome to part 2 of Your Brain and the Art of Happiness.

The main point of the Dalai Lama’s teachings as I understand it is that happiness is not a luxury – but is the purpose of our existence. Not only that – but there is a definite path leading toward it. The first step is to identify the factors that invariably lead to suffering and those that lead to happiness. Then we must begin to eliminate the ‘suffering–causing factors’ and cultivate the ‘happiness-causing ones.’  

Happiness has many levels 

In the Buddhist tradition there are four factors – wealth, worldly satisfaction, spirituality and enlightenment – which create the totality of an individual’s quest for happiness. Good health and a close circle of friends are also important but the door into all of these things is your state of mind. 

Create a happiness state-of-mind 

Your state of mind is not only necessary to create all the experiences in your life but also the filter through which you view them. Without a disciplined mind you are not really in control of what you are doing nor can you be independent of events. The real source of happiness is the control of your consciousness as observed in a calm mind or one engaged in meaningful work. These activities equate to happiness. 

Happiness – the basics 

A basic way to happiness is to cultivate affection and a sense of connection with other human beings. Even if you loose everything, you will have this. The Dali Lama often remarks that while he lost his country, he in a way gained the whole world. This is because he had the ability to bond with others quickly. Always look for what you have in common with others and you will never really be lonely. 

Decide what’s real 

No matter how powerful they may seem – negative emotions and states of mind have no foundation in reality. They are distortions stopping us from seeing things as they really are.  We have only to experience the shame and embarrassment after loosing our temper once to appreciate this. In contrast, when we experience positive emotions we get closer to the true nature of the universe and how we could be all the time.

Your brain and the art of happiness

Last month during his visit to Ireland, the Dalai Lama addressed a capacity crowd at the University of Limerick. He spoke at length about compassion and happiness,  emphasising that we all possess the ability to achieve happiness and a meaningful life.

As a neuroscientist and educator I have had a keen interest in this area over the past 30 years and I have tried to include something of the flavour of what the Dalai Lama teaches in my own research in neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain.

In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama points to four basic principles of happiness:

1. The purpose of life is happiness.
2. Happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances, or events—at least once one’s basic survival needs are met.
3. Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook.
4. The key to happiness is in our own hands.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that the achievement of happiness is scientific and requires discipline. It’s no surprise to me then that the Dalai Lama in Limerick spoke of the need for more neuroscientific research into emotions and the health benefits of cultivating a more compassionate and loving outlook in life.

Over the coming week I will explore these teachings in more detail and look at ways in which we can apply them to help our brains break free from the trap of unhappiness.

Weekly Round Up

The neuroscience of dreaming

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience – the neuroscience of dreaming and eureka moments, the teenage brain and new research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimers.

Scientists have long puzzled over the many hours we spend in light, dreamless slumber. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests we’re busy recharging our brain’s learning capacity during this traditionally undervalued phase of sleep, which can take up half the night.

Perhaps while sleeping we are gaining new insight into our problems. A new brain-imaging study looks at the neural activity associated with insight. The research, published by Cell Press in the March 10 issue of the journal Neuron, reveals specific brain activity that occurs during an “A-ha!” moment that may help encode the new information in long-term memory.

I’ve written previously about the brain of a teenager being hot-wired to take risk, but now new research shows that just when teens are faced with intensifying peer pressure to misbehave, regions of the brain are actually blossoming in a way that heighten the ability to resist risky behavior.

Brain scans are being used to spot the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in a UK-based pilot that could revolutionise its diagnosis. Doctors are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look at whether particular parts of the brain have started to shrink, which is a key physiological sign of Alzheimer’s. The MRI project is an example of “translational research” – that which will have a direct benefit for patients. And in more translational research news, it emerges that in studies of more than 135,000 men and women regular users of ibuprofen were 40% less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.