Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Flourish & Understanding, or: Why Brains Work & How to Make Them Better

I love brains.  In that regard, at least, I have always thought I would make a rather excellent zombie.  Both of my parents went back to school when I was younger.  My dad got a minor in Psychology and my mom loves to tell of how I would read his neuroanatomy textbook for fun.  I was ten.

Now, I'm pursuing my M.A. in Psychology and I still love reading books about the brain: the functions, the wiring, mental illness, developmental disorders, neurological disorders, memory, fear, love, trust- bring it all on.

I have been on a brain binge lately.  Two of the books I have read recently take a look at the brain in two very different ways.  The first is called Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman.  The second is Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastain Seung.

A couple years ago, I took a developmental psychology class called Play: The Importance of Happiness Throughout the Lifespan.  In it, I became familiar with some of the giants in the fields of both play and happiness research.  That's when I learned of Martin Seligman, who is widely considered the father of positive psychology.  As Seligman tells it, psychology has historically been concerned with getting rid of neuroses.  Psychology focuses on the negative: depression, anxiety and the like.  Seligman envisioned a psychology that, rather than solely focusing on the eradication of negative affect, pursues the enhancement of positive affect.  His first theory was outlined in the book Authentic Happiness which has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for the last two years.  Flourish more fully develops the theory articulated in Authentic Happiness.

Seligman's theory is as follows: Instead of being concerned with a concept like "happiness", which is so closely related to mood that one's perception of happiness can be rather capricious, it makes more sense to focus on well-being.  He believes that there are five elements of well-being theory, which are: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, accomplishment, and positive relationships.  He thinks our goal should be to work toward maximizing each of these five elements in our life, thus improving our overall well-being.

Seligman then gives a few positive psychology exercises.  One that I thought was particularly interesting is called the What-Went-Well Exercise, or the 3 Blessings.  Each night, you write down three things that went well that day.  I've kept a gratitude journal before and I think it's a lovely idea.  However, Seligman takes it a step further and encourages you to then take a look at each thing you've written down and ask yourself, "why did this happen?"  and then write that down as well.  I think this is a great idea because it helps us look for patterns, see ways in which people have been particularly wonderful, and encourages us to see ways in which we can have repeat "what went well" experiences.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book goes into the development of many of the Applied Positive Psychology programs without giving us more depth to the well-being theory and the practices we can do to enhance it.  There is a Master's of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.  However, one must be hand-selected to go and the cost is $40,000 a year for tuition alone.  Seligman doesn't delve into his theory too deeply for the rest of us.  While the beginning of the book felt full of promise and the excitement of exploring a new, potentially helpful psychological lens, the rest of the book is only moderately interesting.  We learn that Seligman has used his theories in the military, in education, with leaders of multiple domains, and to create a framework for understanding politics and economics.  However, I finished the book feeling that I was treated to only the sketchiest outline of what those theories actually were.

Connectome, on the other hand, covers its theories rather exhaustively.  Seung's theory is that our synaptic connections comprise much of who we are.  He believes that how our brains wire themselves determines a lot about us: our memories, our personalities, possibly even whether or not we develop autism or schizophrenia.  He proposes mapping the brain's synaptic connections, much as the Human Genome Project has mapped genes.  He believes this will answer a lot of questions about the brain that cannot currently be answered.

And he is the first to admit that much of what he explains is purely theoretical.  Technological capabilities must advance before his connectome theory can be tested.  Seung explains how neurons connect to one another; his idea of how memories are made; and the current understanding of the way genetics, synaptic connections, and environment work together to shape our personality.  He then painstakingly articulates the history of biotechnology and the evolution of neuroscientific theory.

This book snaked back and forth between entertaining and tedious several times.  One of my favorite parts is when Seung compares neurons to an army of paparazzi.  In a truly sublime moment, the professor of Neuroscience and Physics at MIT somehow managed to combine my love of neuroscientific research with my much more embarrassing love of trashy magazines.  Heaven. 

However, I was disappointed that more time wasn't spent covering the connectome theory's potential implications for autism and schizophrenia research.  I understand that this is so new and untested that there's probably relatively little to say.  Still, it was a let down.  Also, the last two chapters were, to use a strictly scientific term, bananas.  Chapter 14: To Freeze or to Pickle? examined the merits and potential downfalls of cryonics (freezing dead bodies to attempt future immortality) and plastination (preserving brains by chemical means, also in a bid for immortality).  Chapter 15: Save As... discussed a future in which connectome mapping could be used to create a digital replica of a person's connectome, thus ensuring that person's ability to live indefinitely in cyber space.  The whole concept gets a little Summer of Love-ish as Seung mentions the idea of people's collective consciousnesses intermingling in cyber space.  It's unfortunate that such a well-researched book was reduced to absurd ponderings in the last two chapters- a neuroscientific version of jumping the shark.

While both of the books had their merits, I would suggest reading synopses and passing on the actual books.  Seligman has a great website www.authentichappiness.org that offers many of his psychological surveys for free.  Seung's subsequent book will most likely be fascinating, once technology has caught up with his ambitious theory.

Day: 65
Currently Reading:
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Love Always: Harriet Evans


Tim said...

Very nice blog! Did he latter go into the chemical connection regarding short and long term memory? Long term potentiation is very very interesting regarding the calcium ion channels and how It stores memory or disregards it.

jwhitus said...

New follower from Book Blogs. Come by my blog and have a look around. Thanks.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

I dunno Erin, the jumping shark of psychology sounds pretty damn cool to me!

In all seriousness, thanks for reviewing these two books. The theories are fascinating, and your distillation of them makes them more accessible for a dummy like me. ;)

I have to say, though, that no matter how "out there" certain theories or ideas seem, the mere positing of those ideas is often enough to plant the seed that, after decades of advanced technologies, eventually becomes reality. I mean, many of the things that were only thought of in science fiction are reality. Take for instance mechanical bodily implants. Now we have pacemakers and artificial joints and cochlear implants, and fifty years ago much of that seemed impossible.

Little Girl Lost said...

Hello Erin, I found the theories propounded by these books very interesting. i dont generally read a lot of nonfiction, but these totally sound like books I could sink my teeth into.
It's my first time on your blog and I really liked your style of reviewing. I hope to be back again. Following you now.
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