National Post (Latest Edition)
Why sex affects us in weird ways
AND OTHER THINGS THAT MAKE THE BRAIN HAPPY
When neuroscientist Dean Burnett wanted to find out what makes people happy, he found a landslide of books by self-anointed life coaches and gurus, “all of varying degrees of dubiousness” and all dressed up in impressive-sounding but nonsensical science speak. “And I thought, you know what? If you’re going to exploit my field, at least put some effort into it,” Burnett writes in his new book The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why.
Burnett, a standup comedian and research associate at Cardiff University who once paid the bills by embalming cadavers donated to science, spoke with scholars, psychologists, millionaires and sex bloggers and discovered, among others things, that insisting on constant happiness can deprive our brains of a full range of emotional experiences. He also concluded that humans care about social status and really like raising it ("basically, winning is fun"), sex affects us in very weird ways (“the impact it has on our everyday behaviour cannot be overstated”) and the human brain — a highly complex “and surprisingly ugly” organ — is generally optimistic. Burnett, who also authored the bestselling The Idiot Brain, spoke with the National Post’s Sharon Kirkey about the science of happiness.
Q: Why are books offering the “secret” to everlasting bliss so popular?
A: When you’re happy, it’s positive, it’s pleasurable. It’s a goal for everyone. And because everyone wants it, it becomes a fertile market for people who are willing to offer it. The brain is very sensitive to calculating how much effort is required for a likely reward. So if someone says, “I can make you happy with minimal effort,” that has an underlying appeal. It’s like the idea you can put your name into a website and suddenly attractive people want to have sex with you. That literally never happens to anyone, ever, but the idea that it could is very appealing.
Q: How is your book different from others about happiness? A: Every week there is a claim that is completely different — either weirdly specific or very, very vague. There are far more claims than evidence. I’m a neuroscientist. I know the brain tends to operate in certain ways, so let’s look at the scientific literature and see if we can build up a sort of model or mechanism for how happiness works. I didn’t have a theory; I didn’t have any ideology to sell. I’m a generally content person, but I don’t have a gospel to spread. I wanted to try to be objective as possible about it.
Q: Is there one brain chemical that’s fundamentally important for happiness?
A: If you had to pick one, most people point to dopamine. It’s the neurotransmitter that the reward pathway uses to do what it does, the part of the brain that allows us to experience pleasure. But that doesn’t mean dopamine is a “happiness” chemical. If you took a bucket of dopamine and fed it to a lobster, it wouldn’t necessarily be happy. It’s not liquid happiness. It’s a tool the brain uses in order to achieve happiness.
Q: What did you learn from Girl on the Net, an anonymous sex blogger you interviewed about love and lust? A: My sexual history is about as exciting as a recipe for toast. Her life is far more inventive and eye-opening. But I think the most revealing thing was that her conclusions after a life of engaging with many sexual partners in different ways were pretty much exactly the same as the conclusions offered by Dr. Petra Boynton, a social psychologist who approaches it from an academic and evidence-based viewpoint. They both conform to the idea that one of the main problems of modern-day society is these relationship models we’re supposed to conform to. We have our society telling us that you must find the one and you should do it by the time you’re in your mid-20s, 30s at the latest, and you have to get married and have a house and have children — not too many — before you’re 40. These are restrictive limits. We assume they’re biologically essential and they’re not. People are very happy with open relationships or multiple partners or no partners. There is nothing wrong with any of these. That’s why love and sex can be so stressful, as well as make us happy. (Burnett also writes about how certain areas of the brain decide when arousal is appropriate, how some brain structures push us toward sex and others hold us back and how men who seem “biologically averse” to committing may lack a brain hormone that keeps male prairie voles monogamous.)
Q: Why do you think people stay with “dreadful” partners?
A: Being newly in love does many things to the brain and one of those is suppress the threat-detecting areas. That’s why newly in love people are so often euphoric and things don’t worry them as much. On the downside, it makes us less perceptive regarding character flaws and dodgy behaviours, so we excuse these in partners and go ahead and form emotional bonds. And once we’re invested in a relationship, the brain is typically very reluctant to abandon it. Q: How can we reconcile the brain’s desire for approval with its “every woman for herself ” take on the world? A: The brain isn’t one homogeneous blob. It’s lots of different parts. The human brain doubled in size the last two million years. That’s a gargantuan size increase in a short space of time, in an evolutionary sense, for a demanding organ. There are different parts of the brain that don’t agree. The “every man for himself ” preservation is essential to keep us alive. That’s the old part of the brain — the brain stem and the deeper middle part of the brain. The part of the brain that’s concerned with civilization and co-operation and empathy are much newer parts of the brain. They evolved in most recent eons. We need both. The old instincts are still around, but the higher instincts can and do often override them.
Q: Why can the pursuit of happiness be self-defeating? A: The brain is not a static organ. It adapts to what you present it with. But life isn’t predictable or reliable. The pursuit of happiness is an end point, a goal. It gives you focus and drive and motivation, which is good. When you put too much stock in it, if you’re constantly looking for and trying things to make you happy assuming they will do that forever, then you’re going to be disappointed because they lose their effectiveness. If you find something that makes you happy, great, but don’t wear it out too quickly. What makes you happy now may not make you as happy next year or even tomorrow. I think the happily ever after cliché is a cultural creation. It doesn’t actually happen. People can be happy overall in their lives or reliably happy at certain points. But being uninterruptedly happy isn’t something the brain is capable of doing.
Q: What makes your brain happy?
A: Finishing my book before the publisher started screaming at me? I guess I’m not a difficult person to please. My wife, my family, being able to create — put things out there and people say, “That’s nice.” That tends to make my brain happy, as it were. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length