Neuroscientists learn that joy comes through dancing, not drugs

Walter J Freeman

Department of Molecular & Cell Biology
University of California, Berkeley CA 94720-3200

Op-Ed requested by Peter Sylwan, Science Editor for Svenske Dagbladet, Stockholm, Sweden 24 May 1996 (in Swedish). Reprinted (in English) in the Journal of Consciousness Studies 4: 67-71.

Too little has been written about the biology of joy. Most of the articles in the medical literature about brains and emotions are devoted to explaining how we feel fear, anger, anxiety and despair. This is understandable, because we don't go to doctors when we are feeling optimistic, happy, and joyful. Most of what we know about the chemistry of our emotions has been learned from the disorders and the treatments of people who are sad and depressed.

But we can't just accept this and say, "Why bother?", because too many of us are seeking to find joy by taking chemicals. We need to ask, "What happens inside our brains when we experience happiness? Is there a way to stimulate pleasure in our brains, and what really happens when we do that?"

Electrical stimulation

We have known for 40 years what happens in rats, ever since a neurobiologist named Jim Olds learned how to put electrodes deep into their brains, connect the wires to an electric current generator, and give the animals a switch with which to stimulate their own brains. In some locations in the brain, if a rat accidentally presses the switch, the rat jumps away and stays as far distant from the switch as it can get. We call those locations "pain centers".

At other places, after discovering the effects of the electric current, the rats press repeatedly for hours. They seem to be addicted to self-stimulation. We call these locations "pleasure centers". But does it make the rats happy? We don't know, because we can't know what they are feeling. We can only know what they do.

Some neurosurgeons have placed electrodes into the brains of human subjects, who were suffering epilepsy. The surgeons were trying to locate the places in their brains, in which a tumor or a scar might be triggering the epileptic fits, so that the damage could be surgically repaired. They stimulated the brains with electric current in order to try to control the epileptic seizures.

For some locations, patients reported feeling profoundly depressed, as though they were about to die. One of them said, "Doc, don't ever do that again!" In different places they reported feeling pleasure, sometimes sexual, but mostly rather bland. Some other patients, who were afflicted with chronic pain, reported that they got temporary relief from their suffering. They were given the opportunity to go home with a battery and a switch, so that they could treat their pain by stimulating themselves and adjusting their own dosage of electric current.

But no one wanted to keep the wires, and no one got addicted. Some doctors feared that a black market might grow, with addicts going to third world countries to get fixed with wires and stimulators. That didn't happen, because whatever the pleasure was, it didn't last, and it wasn't happiness.

Chemical stimulation

But a lot of people do get addicted to chemicals - alcohol, cocaine, amphetamine, heroin, and nicotine. Why do they do that, and why aren't they happy? It is because brains have a variety of chemical systems that regulate their electrical activities in waking and sleeping, and the addictive drugs artificially stimulate those systems, but the feelings are not those of joy.

For example, a chemical called 'dopamine' is broadly spread through the brain by specialized nerve cells, when a person achieves some kind of reward, such as by satisfying hunger and thirst, winning a game, or passing an examination. Dopamine is often called a "reward hormone". Its chemical actions are produced also by closely related compounds such as amphetamine and cocaine. They give feelings of bouyant optimism, energy, power, and knowledge.

It is not surprising that people who have no other avenues to success, living in poverty and hopelessness, will spend their food money on some transient chemical bliss. But that isn't happiness, and even people who are bloated on academic or business success, and who feel elation, aren't liable to confuse that feeling with happiness.

Other chemicals called 'endorphins' act in the brain as natural pain relievers. Their action is imitated by heroin and morphine, also alcohol. Again, it is small wonder that people who suffer from the emotional pains of regret, shame, guilt and despair might find relief from their demons in forgetfulness. But that isn't happiness.

Yet another chemical called 'serotonin' is important in bringing mental relaxation as an important condition for getting to sleep. We don't really know yet what sleep is for, but we know that we can't survive without it. The relief from agitation and anxiety that is mediated by serotonin leads also to recovery from some forms of depression. That is why the chemical fluoxitine (Prozac) has become so popular. It doesn't act like serotonin, but it prolongs the action of what little serotonin the brain is producing, if it is in short supply. But return to tranquillity from anxiety and depression is not the same thing as happiness.

So, is there a chemical for joy? Scientists are beginning to understand that this is a wrong-headed question. There is no such chemical, and even to ask the question is to expose a deep ignorance about how brains - and people - actually work.

Lonely brains

There is more to brain function than chemistry or electricity. Some pioneer neuroscientists have used the new theory of nonlinear dynamics to build mathematical models of brain function. These far-out dynamicists have come to some remarkable new insights, which at first may seem outrageous, but which are turning out to be much more in tune with human intuition about brains and human nature than anyone had expected.

One conclusion is that brains don't take in information from the environment and store it like a camera or a tape recorder, for later retrieval. There is no fixed bank of memories in brains, such as we hold in libraries and computer chips. We have been misdirected by the makers of computers and the visionary Canadian neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, to search for the hypothetical "memory banks" in the temporal lobes of humans. Human remembering is notoriously fallible.

A stimulus that excites the sensory receptors, so that they send a message to the brain, triggers a reaction in the brain, by which the brain constructs a pattern of neural activity. The sensory activity that triggered the construction is then washed away, leaving only the construct. That pattern does not "represent" the stimulus. It constitutes the meaning of the stimulus for the person receiving it. The meaning is different for every person, because it depends on the past experience of the person.

Such a stimulus is only successful in triggering the construction, if it already has some relevance to the person, most particularly if it is being sought by the person through paying attention, or if the person has had some previous experience with that class of stimulus.

Each successful stimulus also evokes a learning experience, so that the person is changed by each stimulus, and new experience accumulates. As the existentialist philosophers from Kierkegaard to Heidegger and Sartre have concluded, each of us constructs our self by our own actions, and we know our self as it is revealed to us in our actions. The self is in dynamic readiness to act and bring into play its entire experience at each moment. That is not the way a library or set of look-up tables works. It is far more flexible and rapid, though at the cost of reduced accuracy.

The implication of this dynamical model is that the meaning of a stimulus is different for everyone who receives it, because the sum of experience for each of us is unique. Because the sensory activity is washed away, and only the construction is saved, the only knowledge that each of us has is what we have constructed within our own brains. We cannot know the world by direct experience of it.

Why not? It is because the world is infinitely complex, and an individual brain can only know the little that it can handle through its own body. It turns out that this view is well known to philosophers. It is called solipsism. Many philosophers have been afraid that it is true, but they couldn't prove it or disprove it. Now neurodynamicists have proven experimentally that it is true. Cognitive scientists have also proved that it is true, but in a negative way. Every attempt they have made to make a robot or a computer, using a fixed memory store, that could handle problems in the real world has failed miserably.

One reason that philosophers have been afraid is that solipsism seemed to make it very difficult to account for shared knowledge. If everything each of us knows is made inside our brains, how can we know the same things? The answer is simple. We share almost the same things. Almost. That happens only if we go to the same school, or grow up in the same neighborhood, and acquire the same language and the same culture.

Another reason for fear is that each brain is isolated from all others. No one can truly feel what another person is feeling, though we can empathize through shared experience. This separation has a good side, in that each of us has the inalienable right to privacy. The bad side is loneliness. And here, paradoxically, is where joy begins to enter.

Dancing is a way to happiness

Where we humans find joy is in surmounting this solipsistic barrier between us and sharing our feelings and comforts. We cannot ever really cross it, but, a bit like neighbors chatting over a fence, we can be together. However, there is more to this communion than mere talking. There is trust, which underlies true friendships and partnerships. What is the chemistry of trust?

Answers are found when we look back on our mammalian ancestors. Raising a helpless infant to childhood requires intensive parental care, which comes with bonding between the parents and the infant. Now, how does a carefree child, when it has grown up, become a parent? This change in role requires a catastrophic change in beliefs, attitudes and values to make new parents. We humans would say that they fall in love, first with each other, and then with their offspring.

Scientists have learned that, when animals mate and give birth, specialized chemicals are released into their brains that enable their behavior to change. Maternal and paternal patterns of nursing and caring appear. The most important is a chemical called 'oxytocin'. It doesn't cause joy. On the contrary, it may cause anxiety, because it melts down the patterns of connections among neurons that hold experience, so that new experience can form. We become aware of this meltdown most dramatically as a frightening loss of identity and self control, when we fall in love for the first time.

Bonding comes not with the meltdown, but with the shared activity afterward, in which people learn about each other through cooperation. Knowing another person doesn't come with foreplay and orgasm. It comes in cooperative activities during and afterward. Trust emerges not just with sex, but also with vigorous shared activity in sports and combat, through which people bond into teams by learning to trust each other.

So oxytocin is not a happiness chemical, but a brain tool for building trust. Perhaps a million years ago our ancestors learned how to use this mammalian mechanism to promote social bonding beyond sexual union, in order to form groups and tribes. They did it, and still do it, with dancing, rhythmic clapping and chanting, singing and making music together all day and night, into exhaustion and collapse. When they awaken, they are reborn.

Nietsche realized this. Emil Durkheim and other anthropologists have shown how people engage in Dionysian orgies and religious ceremonies, as the most effective way in which to create group identities. The joy they experience comes in dancing and singing with each other, thereby forming the bonds of trust. Trust comes when we are able to predict what other people will do, and we achieve that by repeated cooperative actions.

Aristotle wrote: "Happiness is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue." That is rather abstract. We can see virtue as a set of shared goals for the good of ourselves and our children. Joy comes with activities that we share with people we have learned to trust, and that enable us to share meaning across the solipsistic barrier that separates each of us from all others.

So happiness is not made by a chemical. That would be the same as treating a violin sonata as nothing but rubbing horse hair on strings of cat gut in order to make a wooden box resonate. Violin makers have to know their materials to make one, and physicians have to know about the brain chemicals in order to treat patients, when the chemistry of brains has gone wrong, but they can't give us a pill to make us happy. We create our own joys, and we feel happiest in learning to trust each other.