Happiness is in the MRI of the beholder

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  • Published: Dec 1, 2015
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Happiness is in the MRI of the beholder

Mindful of the matter

The correlation between the right precuneus and subjective happiness. Top: The location of the precuneus. Bottom: Scatterplot showing the relationship between grey matter mass and subjective happiness Sato et al Sci Rep

Researchers in Japan have used magnetic resonance imaging and a questionnaire to reveal a correlation between the size of a structure in the brain known as the precuneus and whether or not a person describes themselves as happy.

Happiness is hard to define although we all think we know it when we feel it. If we are fully mindful of the human condition, we can recognise that it's all in the mind...or more specifically all in the brain. Now, Wataru Sato and his colleagues Takanori Kochiyama, Shota Uono, Yasutaka Kubota, Reiko Sawada, Sayaka Yoshimura and Motomi Toichi at Kyoto University, have homed in on a region of the brain that may well be the seat of happiness. The team suggests that happiness is a combination of the emotion and life satisfaction and they surveyed 51 young Japanese people after carrying out an MRI brain scan on each of them. The questions assessed how happy the volunteers feel in general, how intensely they experience emotions and their degree of satisfaction with life.

The team believes they now have a possible neurological perspective on happiness in the precuneus, a region in the medial parietal lobe that becomes active when experiencing consciousness. We may well feel emotions differently but there must be an underlying neurological basis to the subjective experience of being "happy". Understanding that mechanism, according to Sato, will be a huge asset for quantifying levels of happiness objectively.

Happy score

"The relationships between grey matter volumes and psychological measures were illustrated by plotting the gray matter values extracted at the peak voxels against the psychological measures after adjusting for the effects of no interest by regressing out sex-, age-, and IQ-related variance," the team reports. They add that, to create the combination score, each regressor of interest was multiplied by its parameter estimates and these products were summed across the three regressors of interest.

The analysis revealed that those who scored higher on the happiness surveys had more grey matter in the precuneus. In other words, people who feel happiness more intensely, feel sadness less intensely, and are more able to find meaning in life have a larger precuneus. Of course, this does not prove cause and effect nor does it say anything about other groups or larger groups of people over the course of their lives. It was already known that there is a hereditary link in how strongly we feel emotions, happiness included, but a larger precuneus may well be an environmental or a genetic difference.

From Aristotle to analysis

"Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is," lead author Sato says. "I'm very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy." He is hopeful about the implications this has for happiness training. "Several studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter mass in the precuneus. This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programs based on scientific research," he adds. The present study did not investigate the effects of meditation nor its currently popular psychological sidekick, mindfulness. It therefore remains to be seen whether a specific amount of grey matter in the precuneus leads to greater happiness or whether this is simply a spurious difference. Much research remains to be carried out to determine whether training or psychological interventions can make us happier.

"This finding would be just a beginning," Sato told SpectroscopyNOW. "We want to further investigate the neural network dynamics, for example, coupling between the precuneus and amygdala, of subjective happiness. Ultimately, I want to understand how electric activity in neurons can produce subjective states."

Related Links

Sci Rep 2015, 5, 16891: "The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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