How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature

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They are the hormones that are connected with fear and with anger and they not only damage, for example, your arteries and the heart — bringing the possibility of hypertension — they also damage receptors that are on the surface of cells — nerve cells, neurons — in this region in particular.

As the repeated episodes of stress continue, you increase the likelihood of doing actual damage to neurons. It probably wouldn’t make a difference if the stress goes on for one week or three months, but if it is ten years or twenty or thirty, it will make a difference. And there’s a flip-side to this, which is the fact that positive emotions have a positive effect on the health of the tissues in a body.

The brain, the source of our memory, our mind, our behavior, and what we consider our self, is nonetheless an organ system that exists within the body. Because we pay so much attention to the brain and the mind, we start talking about brain and mind and behavior as if they were disembodied — as if they existed on some kind of vat and not inside the body. But from the point of view of evolution and biology, we have brains because we have bodies that the brains need to maintain.

The brain is essentially a great program conductor that is in charge of mediating relations between the body and the surrounding world. It allows us to connect to the physical and social world.

Now, it so happens that the brain is very good at detecting dissonance and harmony. If things are fairly harmonic in our life, the brain works in a harmonic way. One of the ways in which it expresses that harmony is by producing a variety of chemical molecules that maintain the tissues in good health.

There is an endocrine — a hormonal set of signatures — that is related to a life lived with less stress, with hope, with a sense of fulfillment, with a sense of some kind of meaning beyond driving a good car and having a great home and other such luxuries. That translates into healthy tissues, including brain tissue. Because this is all about living cells put together to run the business of life.

The social structure in which the individual is inserted depends on the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the get-go, we are born and are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university. It’s perfectly obvious that dependence is a state for human beings. They depend throughout life on others.

Spinoza was a major philosopher of the 17th century who I believe was one of the great forerunners of modern thinking in biology. The man could not know anything about the brain. Yet in the 1650s he was honing in on ideas that we now find perfectly sensible in terms of our modern understanding of life and of the brain in particular. He clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

Here’s a man who was writing all this between Amsterdam and the Hague in the 17th century, and he has very interesting philosophies that were not at all connected with the Christian and Jewish roots that were his education. It is much more connected to other parts of the world where such thinking is more accepted. He had an interesting spiritual view of the world in which there was a God that was nature. He actually talked about God or nature as if they were virtually interchangeable.

How one leads one’s life, and the lives of others that surround one, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.

I also wanted to say something specifically about emotions and feelings. Emotions and feelings are two different things.  Emotions turn out to be programs in our brain that we inherited through evolution that are devoted to the management of our life. They’re devoted to a process that is known as “homeostasis.”

Emotions are action programs. When you have fear, your face becomes startled, your body posture changes, your heart races, your gut contracts, your pulse races as well, your respiration changes and on and on. All of that is an action program that exists not just in our brain, but in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

These programs achieve something very important. For example, fear allows you to take action, even without thinking, so that you can remove yourself from harm’s way. There are emotion programs that are negative on the surface, such as fear or anger, but that nonetheless are very positive in the outcome that they produced for us. Probably fear has saved more lives than any other emotion.

Then, there are emotions that are extremely positive, that allow you to take advantage of an opportunity. Happiness is one such emotion. It allows you to approach others and sources of nourishment the same way that fear and anger allow you to run away from conflict.

The very important thing to remember is that feelings are not those action programs. Feelings are what you perceive in your mind as a result of being in a state of emotion. Although in everyday language, we confuse one with the other, it’s important — and you have no idea how important this is for research strategy — it’s important to distinguish between an action program that does not even need to be conscious, that animals as have, from feelings. Feelings are conscious and feed this enormously beautiful edifice that we call culture.

If it weren’t for feelings, we would never have been aware of what is happening to us and in our environment. The drive that comes from conscious feeling has allowed us to devise solutions for the many, many problems that nature did not solve for us.

So, while nature solved for us a number of problems by having this device called fear or anger or happiness or sadness in our systems — a little bit like having anti-lock brakes in your car — nature did not devise solutions such as being kind to others, helping others, or a justice system, an economic system, science and technology, or art.

Those were all the things that humans developed as a result of combining intelligence with feelings that made them concerned for what was going on in their surroundings. It’s exactly at that point that you get the emergence of culture. I think making the distinction is important.

Right now, we have a pretty good idea of the structures in the brain that allow you to have an emotion. We can identify the process and specific components of the brain that lead to fear or anger or happiness.

We also know the main platform of the brain that is necessary for us to have feelings, and it is a very different area. As you go deeper into the brain you come towards this island of cerebral cortex known as the insula. We now know that this is the critical platform for the feelings that we have of every kind of emotion and state.

So, for example, if you are eating chocolate the insula gets activated. If you are listening to unpleasant music, that feeling of displeasure comes out of the insula as well. If you are watching a sexually-arousing movie, the insula will get activated. And if you are drinking wine or taking drugs, the insula will get activated. If you are in a state of withdrawal, the insula will get activated. This platform for feeling is the way we end up understanding what is going on in our emotional systems. It’s good for sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

[Laughter.]

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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