This Is Your Brain on Culture

How stories, poems, plays, movies and other arts matter

Culture, Happiness, and a Laboratory Rat

Culture-with-a-big-C--what does it do for human happiness?  What is happiness?

Culture, not the anthropologists' culture, but Culture-with-a-big-C, paintings, poetry, opera, literature, music, drama, and sculpture--what is their relation to human happiness? No doubt we are happy when we enjoy these things, but what is happiness? Historically, happiness has meant two quite different things.


In the older view, that is, in classical and medieval times, you were happy if nothing bad was happening to you. Life consists of what the world or fate does to you. People are helpless before fate. If more good things than bad happen, you are happy. Darrin McMahon, historian of happiness, points out, "In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate." Dutch, for example, uses the same word "geluk" for both happiness and luck. In English, "hap" or "heppe" appeared in Middle English in the thirteenth century, meaning chance, fortune, "an event that befalls one." It survives in our words "perhaps," "hapless," "haphazard," "happenstance," "haphazard," and, especially, "happiness." I think that Freud's idea of returning his patients to ordinary unhappiness instead of neurotic unhappiness has something in common with this older, tragic view of happiness.

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But since the eighteenth century, happiness has become psychologized. Since Locke and Jefferson and Adam Smith, we have considered happiness as a state of mind. Because happiness is a state of mind, you can try to achieve happiness by your own efforts. This is the view enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. We are all entitled as an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.


Both these views make brain sense, but, so far as Culture-with-a-big C is concerned, it is the second that matters. When we create or re-create poems, plays, movies, art, music, or photographs, we are pursuing happiness. We are pursuing a certain state of mind. And how do we pursue it?


Think of a rat in a laboratory cage. This rat is supposed to spin its treadmill once, then push a lever five times which delivers a little sugar water. And the rat spins the treadmill and pushes the lever five times, and the rat gets some sugar water, and the rat spins the treadmill and pushes the lever five times, and the rat gets some sugar water, and the rat spins the treadmill and pushes-and so on. Is that a happy rat? Yes! Believe it or not, rats actually look pleased when given sweet things to taste, and they produce, according to Robinson and Berridge, the rat equivalent of a disgusted look in response to bitterness.


How do we know this is a happy rat? Because it keeps on. It spins the treadmill and pushes the lever five times and gets the sugar water and it spins the treadmill and pushes-it keeps on doing it.


It keeps on doing it-that's exactly what we do with Culture-with-a-big-C. We keep on going to theaters, reading books, taking photographs, going to galleries and museums and concerts. We must be getting the same spritz of pleasure as the laboratory rat. For both of us mammals, that spritz of pleasure is something that occurs in our brains. And that will be my focus in this blog, the role that Culture-with-a-big-C plays in our brains and brains in our Culture-with-a-big-C.

Psychological items I cited:


McMahon, Darrin. Happiness: A History. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.
Robinson, T. E. and K. C. Berridge. "The Neural Basis of Drug Craving: An Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction." Brain Research: Brain Research Reviews, 18.3 (Sept.-Dec 1993):©247-91.

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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