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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus14 min read
Language Both Enraptures and Deceives Us: An interview with linguist and writer Julie Sedivy.
The purpose of language is to reveal the contents of our minds, says Julie Sedivy. It’s a simple and profound insight. We are social animals and language is what springs us from our isolated selves and connects us with others. Sedivy has taught lingu
Nautilus9 min read
Homo Narrativus And The Trouble With Fame: We think that fame is deserved. We are wrong.
Our understanding of fame is critical to how we see each other and our society. But it is also badly wrong. Let me tell you why. We humans are storytelling and story-finding machines: homo narrativus, if you will. In making sense of the world, we loo
Nautilus5 min read
The Communication We Share with Apes: Hand gestures signal the emergence of human language.
There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create words