Nautilus

Why Happiness Is Hard to Find—in the Brain

I arrived for my meeting with Professor Chambers at the pleasant Cardiff pub near his office where we’d agreed to have lunch. He was already sitting at the back of the room, and waved me a hello as I entered.

Professor Chris Chambers is a disarmingly laidback Australian in his late 30s. In what seemed to be a complete submission to cultural stereotypes, he was, at the time, wearing a T-shirt and baggy shorts (despite it raining outside). He is also completely bald, to a “shiny” extent. I’ve met several younger male professors now who have little to no hair on their heads. My theory is that their big powerful brains generate so much heat that it scorches the follicles from the inside.

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock

Anyway, I decided to take the plunge and just say what I wanted from him: “Can I use one of your MRI scanners to scan my own brain while I’m happy, to see where happiness comes from in the brain?”

After about five minutes, he finally stopped laughing in my face. Even the most optimistic person would have to concede that this was not a good start. For the next hour or so, Professor Chambers explained to me, in detail, why my plan was ridiculous.

That’s not really how fMRI works, or how it should work. Back when fMRI was developed, back in the ’90s, what we call the “bad old days” of neuroimaging, there was a lot of what we called “Blobology”: putting people in scanners and hunting

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