Morten Kringelbach recommends the best books on

Emotion and the Brain

We live at a time of unprecedented insight into the workings of our own minds. We can use this knowledge to improve both ourselves and humanity, argues the neuroscientist.

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    The Children's Book
    by A.S. Byatt

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    On the Move: A Life
    by Oliver Sacks

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    Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation
    by David Huron

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    Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life
    by Steven H. Strogatz

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    The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived
    by Peter C. Whybrow

Morten Kringelbach

Morten Kringelbach is the director of Hedonia, a transnational research group based in Oxford, UK and Aarhus, Denmark. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford and a Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, as well as Senior Research Fellow and College Lecturer in Neuroscience at The Queen's College, University of Oxford.

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Morten Kringelbach

Morten Kringelbach is the director of Hedonia, a transnational research group based in Oxford, UK and Aarhus, Denmark. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford and a Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, as well as Senior Research Fellow and College Lecturer in Neuroscience at The Queen's College, University of Oxford.

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To start, let’s get clear what an emotion is.

It would be wonderful if it could be clear because there are lots of definitions of what emotions are. In my textbook, I have tried to characterise all the many different ways that people have thought about emotion. What is clear is that there are certain things that need to be in there. The key thing is affect. It has to be something that affects you in some way: it gives you some kind of pleasure, some kind of pain. But it’s also something that is drawing your attention and that you are then able to evaluate, you are able to think about how it makes you feel. So there’s the automatic response that your brain is making to things that grab your attention, and there is the appraisal of that. One of the ways one can define emotion is as something that arouses affect in you, which you then appraise. I’m very interested in the actual affect — the pleasure and the pain — because another way to think about emotions is as quite large, complex molecules of brain activity. But similar to how molecules consist of atoms, the atoms that each of these complex emotions consist of are these brain networks of pleasures and pains. There’s also a way in which they change over time, both short- and long-term. Emotions are complicated, but the key thing about them is that they’re central to human life.

Some people might be sceptical about the focus on pleasure and pain because they believe emotions are social constructs, culturally created.

They do have that aspect to them as well. But you have to think about why we have pleasure in the first place. It’s clear it’s to make us survive — it’s about having things that make us want to survive. Food is important, sex is important. Neither of those two can happen without having other people here. So interacting with other people turns out to be one of the key fundamental pleasures. Other people affect how you think about getting pleasure and emotion. Different cultures will have different emphases and, yes of course, emotions are, to a great extent, social constructs. But at the heart of what emotions are, the atoms if you like, are these simpler states. They’re not simple at all, but they are states that basically mean something to us that help us with survival.

How would you distinguish an emotion from a mood?

Moods are usually defined as longer-lasting emotions. One could say that pleasures are short-lived experiences within the emotion and emotions are short-lived within a longer state that is usually called a mood. When we talk about moods, we usually talk about maladaptive emotions: we talk about depression, we talk about anxiety. If we want to do something about those, we need to understand the timescales of each of these phenomena and think about how it is that they affect the brain and when it is that they become unbalanced.

“Another way to think about emotions is as quite large, complex molecules of brain activity”

It seems that we’re living in a golden age for brain research. In the last decade or so amazing progress has been made. Have there been discoveries that have transformed our understanding of the emotions?

Yes. We’ve suddenly gained a window into the human mind. We can put people in scanners and find out what parts of the brain are active when we have different emotions, different pleasures, different moods. It’s almost a new phrenology, like in the old days, when there were certain bumps on the brain that were linked to certain states. What is really exciting now — and this has happened in the last couple of years — is that by using different whole-brain computational models (in other words, modelling a brain on the computer) we now have tools for causally determining the ways in which different parts of the brain are talking to each other, and are causally connected to certain behaviours. What we find is that it’s not just one region involved: it’s many regions talking together at certain frequencies in certain ways. That’s what the excitement is about because, once we understand that, we also have a way of rebalancing those systems. There are many ways one could do this. At one end of the spectrum, we could put electrodes into people’s brains and actually change the activity in one particular part of the brain — for example, to quell a tremor in Parkinson’s or to stop the chronic pain one can get from phantom limb pain. Or we could do very simple things like telling stories, getting people to talk about the kind of things that evoke these unbalanced states and change their behaviours — in other words, things like cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness. Those are also things which change the brain. If you were to combine that with neuro-imaging and whole-brain modelling, you could try to work out what it is that works. And if a treatment doesn’t work, then you could try something else. We now have a way of finding out what gives us the best possible outcome and can design new interventions that, hopefully, will make for better lives.

We’re talking about emotions and the brain but there is a long tradition of identifying emotions with the viscera.

The viscera are extremely important. The brain is constantly monitoring what is happening inside the body, the inter-reception — like the butterflies that we get in our stomach. Following Damasio and earlier researchers like William James, there is a whole history of people talking about somatic markers — that these butterflies in your stomach are causing the emotion. But there is compelling evidence to show that it is the brain that is causing these bodily, interoceptive states. The brain is appraising and thinking, and that is what is causing the emotion. It’s a complex feedback system. It’s about understanding that feedback system and also understanding, for instance, how a brain can misinterpret signals from the body. You may be listening to your heart and constantly monitoring it and the moment anything is not the way it should be you get anxious and then, of course, that triggers an even further cascade.

Let’s look at your first choice: The Children’s Book by Antonia Byatt. That’s a novel. It’s an interesting book to start with since it’s not obviously about neuroscience or emotion.

No, it’s a story and, like great stories, it evokes a lot of emotions. I’ve chosen this book because it tells a very particular story, a very central one to the human condition, namely that of children. The main story is about the Edwardian era and the fascination that the Edwardians had with the innocent state of children. She has a huge gallery of people because the novel is what Iris Murdoch always wanted to create: A book with no central character, everybody has an equal status. Each of these characters tells us something about what it’s like to be human. One of the characters is a woman who writes stories about her children. She appropriates those stories and puts them into novels. The question that is posed by the book is: To what extent does she own those stories? To what extent do her children own them? Of course those children, because it’s set in the Edwardian era, will grow up to live through the Great War, which is a destroyer of many things. The question then becomes: What about those glorious childhoods? What about the ones who were looking at those childhoods, appropriating those stories? In the book, many historical figures are taken and thought about — people like Kenneth Graham, Lewis Carroll, and Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement. We also now know, with the benefit of hindsight, that there were some dark sides to these characters. We know that Lewis Carroll loved taking photos of naked young girls. We know that Baden-Powell loved pictures of nude young men bathing. He also loved executions and would travel a long way to see one. So there was this innocence of childhood, and stories about how it was possible to have a perfect childhood — and then there were these dark shadows. The book is very much about the dark shadows. It’s about how it is that we create lives, how it is that our well-being later on is very much shaped by that early childhood. That is something that interests me enormously: how it is that the very early years have large repercussions later on for our emotional development.

We now know, from the scientific literature, that the children of mothers and fathers with post-natal depression have a much higher risk of developing anxiety and depression twenty years later. We know about the long-lasting effects of that lack of intimacy which was also part of the Edwardian era: They idolised children but sent them off to boarding schools, if they were of a certain class. What does that do to a young child? What kind of darkness is hidden within that system? Why would you allow other people to look after your children in that way? And so, even though The Children’s Book is a novel, it’s very perceptive because it tells us some interesting stories about what happens to humans when they go down these sorts of roads.

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The other thing to say about novels in general is that they are all about emotions: If they are not about something that moves us then we stop reading them. It does take a long time to tell a story. You have to get intimate with the character, you have to get inside of their heads. Novels teach us about empathy. You empathise with the characters, you see that what they’re telling you is something you could perhaps learn from. It’s probably the only way that I can learn what it’s like to be a woman. It’s the only way I can know what it was like to live in other times. A good novel — where the author has done all the research and yet doesn’t let it show, where they take only the pertinent parts, that feel right for the story, and use those to enlighten the story — packs a punch. There are several times in The Children’s Book when you are so taken with the story that you can’t put the book down. These people become real, you want to know what happens at the end of it. At the end of the book, it’s the Great War and you want to know who survives and who doesn’t. I know when Antonia Byatt wrote the book she forgot there was a Great War coming. The way she usually writes a book is that she maps out each character on spreadsheets showing what happens. With this book, she got so involved with the story that she forgot what was lying in wait.

At the moment she’s working on a novel about what happens to those who survived the war. What are the effects of the grimness of war, of the scars of war? This is something else that interests me greatly in my work. What happens when something as grim as war happens, what happens to you and how do you come to terms with it? Is there any way of healing the scars of war? Psychoanalysis was a partial answer to that. Whether it was a good answer, it is not yet fully known. It clearly helped some people, but there may be other ways of helping them. And, of course, science is all about working out what works and what doesn’t work.

You’re saying that the core of this book consists of people’s emotional lives. What really matters to people is how they feel.

Yes, that goes without saying. That’s why people make choices and this is what my research is about: understanding why it is that people make certain choices based on their personal history.  I’m very interested in the way the past affects our future and the prior assumptions about the things that happen to us, the kind of stories that we tell ourselves, which then affect how we act. This is what emotion is all about, how we act. Of course, sometimes emotions can cloud our judgement, they can be counterproductive and lead to the wrong choices. At the same time, I think the data show that we need these evaluations in order to make any kind of choice. Most of the time, after we’ve made a choice, we spend a long time thinking about how it is that it was the right one. We tell ourselves stories about why it is that we’re doing the right thing. That confabulation seems to be at the heart of who we are. We may not in fact have free will, but we certainly tell ourselves lots of stories about why it is that we chose to do one thing over another. Most of the time that has little to do with why we actually did it…

That leads quite neatly into the story that Oliver Sacks has given us about his life. Oliver Sacks, a superb writer as well as neurologist, is probably most famous for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. This book, On the Move, is his recently published autobiography.

One of the reasons I got interested in neuroscience was because of the way Oliver Sacks uses stories to illuminate science.  He took people on the margins, with neurological syndromes — like the man who had an injury which meant that the part of his brain that processes faces no longer worked, he was The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat — and told us the reality about what it was like to be that person. His stories are brimming with life, they are full of little things that make you feel for the character. Another great story he wrote was An Anthropologist on Mars. This was about a woman with Asperger’s who said she couldn’t really understand the motives of other people. She felt like an anthropologist on Mars trying to understand and develop an empathic response to others. Her name is Temple Grandin and she actually has a PhD in animal husbandry. She designs abattoirs and creates the most humane situation for these animals before they are killed. She finds it difficult to understand other people, so she designs a machine she can control. She understands what empathy is, but she’s never been on the inside. She reads novels but she doesn’t crawl inside the narrative of those who are telling stories.

I’ve chosen Oliver Sacks’s autobiography because it tells us about how he became the man who wrote those books. It’s a story that is, in many ways, like The Children’s Book. It’s about a young man growing up in London, and being sent off to boarding school in the 1940s with his brother. The school’s headmaster was sadistic, and that created a scar on his life he never fully recovered from. It’s also about a brilliant student who came up to The Queen’s College, Oxford, which is my own college, and studied medicine here. It’s a story about how he had to come to terms with his homosexuality, which his mother didn’t really approve of, and he nevertheless had to live with. It’s about his loves, and the life that he led. He moved to America, and it’s about him going to California and living the Californian lifestyle and riding motorcycles. The title of book, On the Move, is from a wonderful poem by Thom Gunn about these men who are always on the move in their black leathers. It’s about how, in California, he became a weight-lifter and a Californian record holder. It’s also about his amphetamine habit — how he would spend weekends just living through his addiction. It’s about how, eventually, his mother and father died and how it was then that he had to come to terms with who he was. He moved back to New York, where he had spent some time before, and became the man who wrote Awakenings. He had always been very interested in his patients, but he finally plucked up the courage to actually write about them and to show that strong empathy for them that comes through in all his writing.

What is interesting is that science usually is all about numbers, it’s all about randomised control trials. Oliver Sacks is a different kind of scientist. He takes his mantra from Alexander Luria, the great Russian psychologist who, amongst other things, wrote The Mind of a Mnemonist, about a man who could not forget. The implications of being unable to forget were then famously made into a short story by Borges called Funes the Memorious, where he talks about somebody like Luria’s famous patient S. This mix of science with literature makes Borges suggest that to think is to forget a difference, to be able to abstract. If you remember everything, then everything becomes the same. If you always just see the specifics as opposed to the generalities, it’s impossible to work out first principles. But you have to understand the specifics in order to make the jump to generalisation. What we get from the stories Oliver Sacks tells is the possibility of thinking about otherness. It’s about thinking how things could be otherwise in very specific ways, and then how we can generalise that to the human condition. That is the power of his writing for me.

“In general novels are all about emotions: If they are not about something that moves us then we stop reading them.”

It strikes me that he’s a very humane writer. I wonder if to be humane involves engaging with emotions, and that, almost by definition, an emotionless person would find it difficult to be humane.

The question is: could one be truly emotionless? Could one be an android dreaming of electric sheep, as in Philip K. Dick’s books? What is it like to be somebody without emotions? I think there are very few examples. I think Temple Grandin has emotions: the molecules we talked about earlier are just not formed in the way found in what autists sometimes call neurotypicals. Pain and pleasure remain — even in psychopaths. They have a keen sense of their own pleasures, it’s just they never regard those of others as being important. In fact, they sometimes take pleasure in other people’s pains. I think what connects us, this human web, the social aspect, is what permits empathy. A book I would have liked to have included today is a book on empathy called The Handbook for Revolution by Roman Krznaric. It’s about what it means to be human, what it means to empathise with other people, and whether that can be taught, which we are now exploring in the Empathy Museum. I think the science of that is at the heart of what a science of emotion should be: it’s about understanding our own emotions but we cannot understand our own emotions without understanding those of others. The way that Oliver Sacks’s books work is that they show us what it’s like to be another and they then make us empathise, even if we cannot imagine, or we find it very difficult to imagine, what it’s like not to be able to see faces, or not to be able to empathise, or not to be able to see colour. In one of his famous stories, there’s somebody who is a painter who cannot see colour, and yet he is able to reproduce colours in his paintings. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of how the brain works?

Life is never a straight path. In California Oliver Sacks was a physician to Hell’s Angels. Can anybody be further removed from the Oliver Sacks that we all know and love? But even Hell’s Angels have a need for empathy, for somebody to look after them. And by somebody doing that for them, they also have the potential for change…

One of the mysteries of human life is the relationship between music and the emotions. Music is universal and is usually spoken of in terms of the emotions, but the connection is not at all easy to spell out. The book you’ve chosen, Sweet Anticipation, attempts to demystify this relation between music, particularly western music, and the emotions.

Yes. Going back to Oliver Sacks, music played a huge role in his life. He wrote a book called Musicophilia which is about how music moves us and how even in those who have lost all sense of identity — because of, say, Alzheimer’s — music can still bring them out of their shells. It’s still the nursery rhymes of their early childhood they will be able to recite and that will give them pleasure. The question for me, and the kind of questions I raise in my research, is: Why is that? Why is music so powerful? Why it is that music can evoke emotion within two bars as opposed to a story that takes a long time to develop? Why does music pack such an emotional punch? David Huron in his book, Sweet Anticipation, has come up with what I think is the best answer to this question, namely that we are prediction machines. Based on our past experience, the way we’ve grown from early childhood, with our genetic dispositions, and within a human web of interpersonal relationships, we have a certain history and, specifically with music, a certain listening history embedded, for many of us here, in a Western music history. We form certain likings, and there are certain things we expect to happen. Everybody familiar with the western canon will know the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  And if I were to play a different note to end it, your brain would immediately go, “No! No! That’s not how it goes. That’s not what I expected.” Your brain immediately sends a prediction error. That’s exactly how music works on all levels — in terms of rhythm, of melody, of harmony. It’s setting up predictions, setting up tensions that are then either fulfilled or released. That game — and it is a game that is really playful and joyous — is something that can go on for a very long time. What happens with interesting music is that it’s just on the edge between being completely unexpected and yet having this familiarity that sometimes can get boring. New tunes that you home in on are things that are not that far removed from what you’re used to listening to: Not the same but still not completely unpredictable. This is also the human condition. When you think about food, it’s the same. It’s about exploring and yet exploiting what you already have. Life is sort of stretched out between those poles. The nice thing about music, both in terms of why it evokes emotions in us but also why it’s a great research tool, is that you can do it over and over again and it doesn’t get boring. With food, usually, you get sated at some point.

So the value of music lies in its potential to give deep pleasure?

Yes. And it creates those paradoxical situations such as how sad music can also be deeply pleasurable. The Portuguese have a name for it, ‘saudade.’ It’s not quite melancholy but it’s a longing for a past. As you listen you get refreshed, you suddenly have a pleasure you had forgotten existed. I think this is why music is something that is everywhere. Steven Pinker famously wrote, in The Language Instinct, that we could have no music and we would be exactly the same. It’s like cheesecake, he said, something that’s nice but we don’t really need. I think he’s completely wrong. Music is one of those things that is intrinsic to humans. We don’t know of any other species that has music. Others, such as chimpanzees, can distinguish between major and minor keys, but they don’t do it spontaneously, they don’t engage in music-making just for the fun of it. That is also why I’m very interested in music, because it tells us something about the human condition. It also tells us something about creativity because it involves mucking about. You have something, you play around with it, and you create something new that is a bit like what went before but is also something new, and as you play more and more with it, it becomes something completely different.

What would you say to Steven Pinker, then, when he says we can get by without music? Lots of people would feel that we could get by without it as a species.

There are certain things in life that aid survival: food is clearly one of them, sex is one of them. We couldn’t live without those. But it’s also very clear that unless we have sex with somebody, i.e. there is a social element, then we wouldn’t survive either. This social element is, in fact, a fundamental pleasure. The reason why music is indispensable is because of the bonds that it creates between people. This begins very early on in infancy. In my research, I’m very interested in the links between vocalisations — motherese, the nursery rhymes mothers and fathers use to try and grab the attention of their infant — and the way that creates a bond. Very late in life, also, those same nursery rhymes are the ones that still have emotional resonance, that remind us of who we are. The link of memory with this deep sense of the pleasure of belonging, of being part of a human web, is what makes music indispensable. Of course language is indispensable in that sense as well: Music and language share a lot of features and I’m very interested in the links between them. So I would say to Steven Pinker that the social element is key to who we are, and music is a key enhancer of that. Even in language, of course, poetry is not that far removed — the kind of prosody, the kind of vocalisations I mentioned earlier are on the road to becoming musical. When is it music? When is it prosody? When is it poetry? I think this is just part of being human. You’d be wrong to say we can’t have prosody anymore, that we should not have this sing-song in our language, that we should all speak like automatons. Say that to somebody from Italy!

Let’s move on to the fourth book, Sync: the Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. This is written by a mathematician and is a very wide-ranging book. How does that relate to the emotions? It’s not obvious from a simple description of the book.

Steven Strogatz is a wonderful scientist. He is both a mathematician and a physicist. He’s done a lot of work on understanding non-linear systems. The reason I’ve chosen this book is that if we really want to understand the language of the brain we have to engage with these very powerful concepts of how it is that things are synchronised, how it is that they oscillate together. This is a book for the general public that tries to relay some of that excitement, some of the tools that we’ve gained mathematically in order to do that. He starts with fireflies. You will have seen them at night, when they are fluctuating and synching. One of his great discoveries is that if you put each of them in their own little cup, they will go into their own frequencies and be completely out of sync with one another. But all you have to do is to remove the cup, and suddenly, spontaneously, they will start to sync again: they will go into patterns that will be weaving in and out. This is exactly how the brain works. Understanding that — and the physics and the mathematics of doing that — is what allows us to create models and go beyond being new phrenologists, beyond just saying ‘Well, something happened and that went off and that went off.’ Instead, we can make models which divide the brain into a couple of hundred different regions and we work out exactly what the wiring is between them. We can create a sort of skeleton of where this communication can happen. Then we watch the communication unfold, and we make computational models that can mimic that. At each stage, we put in these synchronous, these oscillatory abilities, and we can then recreate what the human brain is doing. More importantly, we can then go back to the model and say ‘Okay so that part correlated with this. What happens if I take that out of my model? Will I still get the same result or will I get something different? If I take it out and get the same result then I can say that it’s probably not causally related. But if I take it away and the model gives a different answer, I can say that this part is in fact what is causing the synchronisation.

In terms of understanding the emotions, there is a kind of crude neuroscience that says, ‘this part of the brain lights up.’ Often, by the time this research gets through into the newspapers, it is laughably simplistic. Are you suggesting that the mathematics allows a more complex analysis of the way in which different centres of activity in the brain interconnect?

Yes. What I’m suggesting is that if we are serious about understanding mood, and if we want to understand how emotions malfunction, as they often do, and how the brain becomes unbalanced, what we need to understand is that even if we have the same network, the traffic can flow in many different ways. Look at how traffic runs: if a certain hub is suddenly working at only 20% of capacity, you can get a road jam somewhere else. If we want to try and clear up that road jam, and rebalance the brain, the only way of doing that is to understand the mathematics. What he is proposing here shows how that can be done in a very elegant and accessible way that many people will be able to relate to. What is also clear from his work is that the brain is a special kind of network, it has certain properties that allow all these interesting things to happen. It allows things like emotion to guide and to explore the repertoire, if you like, of the system. Emotions can be thought of as guidance as to why it is that we should explore this part as opposed to that part. The big question becomes: when do things change? When do we have phase transitions? Everybody will be familiar with phase transitions. Take water. If you heat it up over a hundred degrees, suddenly you have vapour. If you freeze it to zero, you have ice. It’s the same thing with the human brain. Depending on different conditions, you have radically different states. You can be awake or you can be asleep, you can be functioning normally or you can be manic. What is it that is causing those phase transitions?

Your last book choice, The Well-Tuned Brain, takes the notion of harmony seriously. That’s a metaphor Plato used actually, about the harmonious parts of the soul. It seems to combine neuroscience and ethics. The subtitle is: Neuroscience and the Life Well-Lived. This is by Peter Whybrow, a psychiatrist.

This is the last part of a trilogy: the first one was called A Mood Apart, the second one was called American Mania, and this is the one that suggests solutions. The first one is about the emotions and how it is that they change in moods and how we can treat them. It was a very interesting book about emotions from a psychiatric point of view. The second book was about what he saw as the American condition — why it is that Americans are running around frantically, and the kind of mania you find, not full-blown mania, but things that go awry. Before the financial crisis, he was already saying this cannot be sustainable, this belief in technology is not something that can go on. Sadly, he was right. In this book, he’s trying to think about how we can come up with solutions, how we can look at the kind of people we are, that our emotions have turned us into, and then tune ourselves. He takes the metaphor of the ‘wohltemperierte klavier’ or ‘well-tempered clavier.’ The idea, from the history of music, is this. Initially, with the harpsichord, you had to tune it to the key you were in. Then the wohltemperierte klavier came along and you could tune it in such a way as to be able to play all different keys. What he is suggesting is that, by understanding the human condition, there are ways in which we could really tune ourselves to function more optimally. We can deal with problems that we have, that are inherent in human nature, such as, for instance, that as young children we always find it difficult to defer our goals. We find it much, much easier to jump directly to the small reward instead of waiting a bit for a larger one. We find it difficult not to want things that we know are pleasurable and we tend to do things to excess. In my research, with Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, we have shown that when you think about pleasure, there’s a wanting phase when you want something. Right now, I’m getting quite hungry so I’m thinking about where food might be coming from. Then I engage, and find the food that I like. Then, at some point, I can’t have any more. There’s a lot of learning going on throughout that cycle. If you come into contact with something that is hugely pleasurable — like sugar — it’s difficult not to search for sugar everywhere. Then, when you do it to excess, it’s not particularly sustainable. So, what Whybrow is talking about here, is all of the different ways we can learn from what we know about the brain to come up with sustainable solutions. For instance, it’s variation that’s important — as opposed to just doing one thing to exclusion and becoming addicted to it. One of the things he talks about was what I was stressing earlier: the role of love and of early life experiences in creating a balanced life. If you want to create a happier society, you need to intervene at a much earlier stage and help people with post-natal depression, help them to engage with their children, to build on their strengths and create ways for them to feel connected, to weave that social connectedness. That’s a very humane and important message. Technology is a great tool but it’s also a word for something that doesn’t quite work yet. It will never solve our problems. What will solve our problems is having meaningful engagement with other people. To do that, we have to empathise with them, we have to have an understanding of our own shortcomings and ways in which we can overcome them.

Whybrow talks a lot about some of the early philosophers and political scientists, like Adam Smith. He is seen as this selfish economist but, of course, if you really read him, what he’s concerned with is being part of a social web. It’s about making the right choices based on a social contract. What’s important is easily lost: if you’re just interested in money for money’s own sake that’s neither here nor there, because one of the key things about money is that it’s not a natural reward. It’s impossible to have too much money. But money stands in for something else, and that something else is social relationships. Once you understand that, and are able to make sustainable solutions, you may be able to provide hope and wisdom for the way in which we build our societies, and how we are going to carry on living on this planet. This is a book that engages with some really large and important questions — from human nature and what we understand about the brain and early experience — to how we should govern and how we should manage and live in, maybe not harmony, but at least some kind of balance with the nature that sustains us and which gives us the most pleasure possible.

It strikes me that there is a long history of talking about how to live a good life or a well-lived life but it’s only recently that people have thrown the word ‘brain’ into the answer. There’s something special about the times we’re living in where it seems quite reasonable to talk about the physical neuronal structure as a thing that we have to focus on in order to live well.

There is certainly that perspective. At the same time, it’s important to remember that probably the most important brain is that which exists between people. We can peer into our own brains but really I think the exciting bit is when we look at how brains interact and finding out what is natural to the human species. One should not forget the curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ It’s ironic that we are getting closer and closer to being able to ‘know thyself’ — as was written on the portico at the temple in Delphi — and yet we are doing it at a time when we are changing the natural environment in which we live almost irrevocably. There is an urgent need both to peer into ourselves, to understand our emotions but also to take the consequence of what it is that we learn about our maladaptive emotions and short-termism, about all the limitations that are built into the human condition, and see if we can’t actually transcend those.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

September 11, 2015

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