The Skeptical Brain

Reflections on neuroscience and cultural history.

The curvilinearity of life

Our mental space is curved, rather than rectilinear, too

 

I have called this blog The Skeptical Brain, because I am sceptical about many of the things that we nowadays assume to be obvious, starting with the mechanical nature of what we call the material world (I am not a physicist, but physics would be against that, too).  

To take just one example: it seems obvious to us that if we pursue a rationally desirable goal, we stand the best chance of achieving it.  In fact, however, by the very fact of pursuing it we may be driving it further away.  (I suspect we may all have reason to recognise the truth of this in human relationships.)  As the philosopher Jon Elster demonstrated in his wonderful, elegant, devastating book Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (although first published in 1983, it is a ‘must’ to read now – get it for Christmas, you will never regret it), there are many rational goals that a rational person should pursue, but which flee from pursuit like sleep from the insomniac.  Their pursuit is, therefore, irrational. 

The world appears rectilinear, but is in fact curvilinear – a literal truth in physics, and a metaphorical one in metaphysics.  We used to understand what was called the coincidentia oppositorum, the coming together of opposites (I touch on this here, in the video of a lecture I gave at the Royal Society of Arts in London last month).  It was essential to the understanding of the world we had prior to Socrates, it was clear to the great minds of the Western Renaissance, and it is fundamental to most Oriental philosophy.  But we think we have got beyond that, because such a position is ‘not rational’.  The point I want to make is that our rationality is not rational enough – does not follow its own logic. 

It is not rational to assume, without evidence, that rationality can disclose everything about the world, just because it can disclose some things.  Our intuition in favour of rationality, where we are inclined to use it, is just that - an intuition.  Reason is founded in intuition and ends in intuition, like a pair of massive bookends.  We can’t rationally prove the status of rationality.  What we can rationally prove, in fact, is that rationality is limited.  Gödel’s theorem was anticipated several centuries by another mathematical genius, Pascal, when he wrote that ‘the ultimate achievement of reason is to recognize that there are an infinity of things which surpass it. It is indeed feeble if it can’t get as far as understanding that’.  But that doesn't make rationality unimportant.  It is vital, even if part of the good service it offers is to flag up its own limitations.  We have to know when, where and how much to use it, and there are no rules for that.  It's what used to be called wisdom, and - there are no rules for that, either. 

Coming back to the psychosocial realities of everyday life, we find ourselves pursuing freedom, but increasingly observed, monitored, tracked and photographed, as well as threatened with what de Tocqueville foresaw as a new kind of servitude, which ‘covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate ...’  And we pursue happiness with a positively staggering lack of success. 

I am aware that, if one adopts the left hemisphere’s view, what I am about to say will be difficult to accept, but the fact remains that increases in material well-being have little or nothing to do with human happiness. Obviously poverty is an ill, and everyone needs their basic material needs to be met, and, for most of us, a little more than that. But, if observation and experience of life are not enough to convince us that, beyond that, there is little, if any, correlation between material well-being and happiness, objective data demonstrate it.

Over the last twenty-five years, levels of satisfaction with life have actually declined in the US, a period during which there has been an enormous increase in prosperity; and there may even have been a significant inverse relationship between economic growth and happiness there. Since those blessed with employment spend much of their life at work, the quality of that experience matters. According to Putnam, in 1955 in the US, 44 per cent of all workers enjoyed their working hours more than anything else they did; by 1999 only 16 per cent did.  Of course that might be because we are now enjoying ourselves more outside of work, but that clearly isn’t the case, since overall levels of satisfaction have declined. 

In Britain the story is the same. According to Gallup poll data, throughout the 1950s the British were happier than they are today, despite now being three times richer in real terms. In 1957, 52 per cent of the population considered themselves ‘very happy’, compared with 36 per cent today. Most countries studied show either a decrease or at least no change in well-being despite an increase in prosperity; and no relationship can be found between happiness and economic growth. The main determinants of happiness, as one might have expected, are not economic in nature. As two researchers in the area remark, with some restraint, given the huge increases in material prosperity over the last half century for which robust data exist, ‘the intriguing lack of an upward trend in happiness data deserves to be confronted by economists.’

Perhaps the most remarkable example is that of Japan. In 1958, Japan was one of the poorest countries in the world, comparable with India and Brazil as they then were, with an average income in real terms about one-eighth of that enjoyed in the USA in 1991. Over the last 40 years or more, Japan has enjoyed an astounding, and unprecedented, increase in per capita income, of about 500 per cent in real terms. Yet a repeated finding is that levels of happiness among the Japanese have not changed at all, and the latest data, before the current global economic crisis, showed a slight downturn.

More recent evidence in Europe displays the same effect. The so-called Euro- Barometer surveys of satisfaction with life, covering fifteen European countries during the decade to 2000, shows four clusters, in each of which the consensus trend is horizontal or slightly negative. The hedonic treadmill makes sure of that: modern consumers everywhere are in a ‘permanent state of unfulfilled desire’. As usual Sam Johnson got there about a couple of centuries before the research: ‘Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.’

Geoffrey Miller, a psychologist who has specialised in research into happiness, has found that

a person’s age, sex, race, income, geographic location, nationality, and educational level have only trivial correlations with happiness, typically explaining less than 2% of the variance. An important exception is that hungry, diseased, oppressed people in developing nations tend to be slightly less happy – but once they reach a certain minimum standard of calorie intake and physical security, further increases in material affluence do not increase their happiness very much.

Even in the affluent West, happiness reaches a plateau at an average national income that is remarkably low compared with most people’s aspirations, variably estimated as between $10,000–$20,000 (£7,500–£15,000) per annum.

So what does make a difference to happiness? ‘The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world’, writes Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, ‘is that happiness is best predicted by’ – let’s guess: if not wealth, then health? No, not that either, but – ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections’.

Even now, rates of depression do differ markedly between cultures, probably by as much as 12-fold, and such differences in rates of depression appear to be linked to the degree of stability and interconnectedness within a culture. Even being uprooted from your own culture, provided you take with you the way of thinking and being that characterises the more integrated social culture from which you come, is not as disruptive to happiness and well-being as becoming part of a relatively fragmented culture. For example, rates of psychological disturbance in Mexican immigrants to the USA start at a low level, but increase in proportion to the time spent in the US. The lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder in one large study was 18 per cent for Mexican immigrants with less than thirteen years in the US, 32 per cent for those with more than thirteen years, but only for those born in the US did it approximate, at 49 per cent, the national rate for the whole US.

Over recent years, urbanisation, globalisation and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness in the developing world. A massive study involving data regarding nearly 40,000 people across North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Rim found that depression is being experienced more often, and at younger ages, with more severe and more frequent episodes, in younger birth cohorts generation by generation, and in the USA had doubled since the Second World War.

In a demonstration of the integrity of mind and body, it is not just mental health, but physical health that suffers when we are not socially integrated. ‘Social connectedness’ predicts lower rates of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts.  In fact the positive effects of social integration rival the detrimental effects of smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and physical inactivity. According to Putnam, ‘statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon general’s report on smoking.’

The protective effect of community is demonstrated by the interesting case of Roseto, a close-knit community of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, with largely traditional cultural ties – both the formal ones of churches and clubs, and the informal ones that form the fabric of traditional Italian daily life. This community attracted medical attention in the 1940s because of a mysterious anomaly: here was a rate of heart attack less than half the national average, despite having higher than average risk factors. After the relationship with social connectedness was discovered, it was predicted that once the mobile younger generation moved away and ‘began to reject the tight-knit Italian folk-ways, the heart attack rate would begin to rise’. By the 1980s this prediction had come true.

All this, one can’t help feeling, would be understood easily enough by the right hemisphere, even if it remains opaque to the left hemisphere. Happiness and fulfilment are by-products of other things, of a focus elsewhere – not the narrow focus on getting and using, but a broader empathic attention. We now see ourselves in largely mechanistic terms, as happiness-maximising machines, and not very successful ones at that. Yet we are capable of other values, and of genuine altruism and, in another Gödelian moment, the Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates that altruism can be, incidentally, useful and rational. In the real, practical, everyday world what I have called the ‘return to the right hemisphere’ is of ultimate importance.

I do not underestimate the importance of the left hemisphere’s contribution to all that humankind has achieved, and to all that we are, in the everyday sense of the word; in fact it is because I value it, that I say that it has to find its proper place, so as to fulfil its critically important role. It is a wonderful servant, but a very poor master.

 

 

Dr. Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists more...

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