Altruism: It’s In Our DNA

Although, like most people, I have my cynical and misanthropic moments, I broadly consider myself to be an optimist with regards to human nature and our species’ capacity to improve itself and the world (arguably, I would be a poor humanist if I did not believe in the positive potential of humanity). The ability to practice concern for the welfare of others, without any want of reward or gain, represents one of the key virtues that will lead to a better world.

Much of my confidence stems from my own broadly beneficial experience with my fellow humans: I am fortunate to have experienced and witnessed so much kindness, compassion, and understanding. While my intimate study and exposure to the worst of humanity, past and present, has no doubt tempered my faith, I remain committed to the idea that humans are not in any sense fundamentally evil or violent, as many would believe.

Indeed, whatever moral and cognitive failings seem innate to our species seems offset by an inherent, evolutionary capacity to transcend such faults. Aside from ample anecdotal evidence of humans (as well as other primates) demonstrating selfless behavior, there is a large and growing body of research proving that selflessness and conscientiousness is a fundamental aspect of being human.

One of the most recent studies to explore the origins of human altruism was conducted by a team from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which examined groups of primates — including humans — and how they each develop concepts of selflessness and cooperation. As reported in IFScience:

The researchers designed a test in which a food treat was placed on a sliding board. The individual moving the board can bring the treat within reach of others within the group, but will not be able to get the food themselves.

The experiment was carried out in 24 groups across 15 species of primates, including 3 groups of human children who were 5-7 years old. The food selection was tailored for each group, in order to test whether or not the primate would willingly give up a desired treat. The researchers found that species who most often utilized the “it takes a village” style of cooperative breeding were also more likely to help someone else get a treat, even though they didn’t get one themselves.

“Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically,” Burkart explained in a press release.

The researchers also examined possible relationships between giving a treat to a friend and other cooperative behaviors, such as group hunting and complex social bonds, as well as relative brain size. Cooperative breeding was the only trait that showed a strong linear correlation and was the best metric for predicting altruistic behavior.

“Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,” Burkart continued.

However, cooperative breeding is likely one of many factors that could have influenced the evolution of altruism among humans. Over the evolutionary history of our ancestors, living in cooperative groups may have benefited greatly from high cognitive abilities, especially regarding things like language skills.

Burkart concluded: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”

In other words, being altruistic comes as natural to us as any other trait we consider to be quintessentially human (language, higher thinking, etc). Not only is it a virtue in itself, but it serves a pivotal role to our survival and flourishing. Working in tandem with the other characteristics of higher sentience, altruism helped grow and solidify social bonds, which in turn facilitates the cooperation and organization that is so vital to an otherwise defenseless and vulnerable species.

In fact, without our high cognitive capacity — our ability to share and develop new ideas, to invent, to coordinate and work together — we would not have survived against the harsh elements and the many physically superior predators that inhabited it. In the aggregate, every individual act of welfare and assistance to others helps create a stronger and more robust society that can better survive and prosper.

Shortly after the IFLS piece, NPR also published an article on the subject of altruism and its roots in human biology. It was inspired by the case of Angela Stimpson, a 42-year-old woman who donated a kidney to a complete stranger without any credit or reward. She cited a sense of purpose as her motivation, echoing many other altruists who claim to derive meaning from being kind and doing good deeds.

So what is the psychological basis of this position?  That is what Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University,a leading researcher on altruism, set out to discover:

Marsh wanted to know more about this type of extraordinary altruism, so she decided to study the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 of them, including Angela Stimpson, were kidney donors.

Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of their brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.

Most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors. Except, Marsh says, for a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion.

These findings are the polar opposite to research Marsh conducted on a group of psychopaths. Using the same tests as with the altruists, Marsh found that psychopaths have significantly smaller, less active amygdalas. More evidence that the amygdala may be the brain’s emotional compass, super-sensitive in altruists and blunted in psychopaths, who seem unresponsive to someone else’s distress or fear.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, the area that primarily houses our emotional life, and that plays a large role in forming memories and making decisions. Neither the study nor articles delves into the causality of the relationship between amygdala size and altruism: is it a large amygdala that leads one to become more selfless? Or does engaging in enough altruistic act over time cause the amygdala to grow larger? There is still much to learn about this area of the body.

But one thing is for certain: for all the negative behaviors and habits we associate with human nature, we must not overlook or understate just how intimately tied our humanity is with acts of kindness and compassion. From our biology to our neurology, humans, for the most part, have an instinct to be kind whenever and however possible. The key is to build upon these foundations, cultivate them in others, and figure out how to correct any naturalistic imbalances that may undermine. A difficult and long-term goal, but certainly a worthy and ultimately human one.

The Tribulations of Empathy

It would seem intuitive that empathy is an inherently positive quality: what could be wrong with being able to deeply feel or think what other someone else is experiencing? Most acts of compassion and altruism are predicated on being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and subsequently seeking to better their circumstances; without a fundamental understanding of one’s circumstances and  needs, it is arguably harder to rouse yourself into acting for their benefit.

But an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman challenges the importance of empathy in ethical decision-making, going so far as to suggest that it may even be a handicap:

The problem is that empathy – the attempt to feel or think how someone else is feeling or thinking – isn’t a reliable way of doing good. For one thing, we find it easier to empathise with better-looking people, and with those of the same race, so the more we rely on empathy as a guide to action, the more we’re vulnerable to such biases. We also get entangled in the “identifiable victim effect”: empathy makes us care more about, say, the single missing child than the thousands who might be harmed by a government policy, never mind the as-yet-unborn victims of future global warming. Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped… Let it be reported that without a sales tax the [hospitals] of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear.” A surfeit of empathy may hurt the empathetic, too: it’s been linked to burnout and depression, neither of which make people better at helping others.

This touches on two interesting problems related to misplaced and/or excessive empathy.

One is psychic numbing, whereby individuals or even entire societies give little to know attention to threats that are far-off, geographically distant, and of low probability — even though they are otherwise of massive consequences. A familiar example would be how more people seem mourn or focus upon a high-profile tragedy involving one or a few individuals, whereas genocides, famines, or calamities like climate change attract far less attention, much less action.

There are many interesting reasons why this discrepancy exists, among the most prominent being that we can better empathize with one or a few individuals than we can with faceless (and often foreign) millions — the old adage of one death being a tragedy and a million being a mere statistic. Our cognitive capacity is limited and can only connect with so many people before it fails to really impact us; similarly, we can only look so far ahead, and things like climate change are on a scale of complexity that is difficult to grasp on a strictly visceral level.

The second issue touched on in this except is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, in which individuals or societies demonstrate reduced compassion over a period of time. Unsurprisingly, this problem is most often observed among those who work with, live, or are exposed most to those that suffer: first responders, nurses, psychologists, aid workers, and the like. Over time, one can become more cynical, depressed, prone to sleeplessness, unfocused, or demonstrate other signs of hardheartedness and negativity.

On a collective level, this can be very problematic: it has been argued that the over-saturation of media with de-contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering has led to a more misanthropic and withdrawn society. Again, the familiar example is how fairly tolerant we seem to be of large-scale problems, ranging from growing poverty in the U.S. to the massive catastrophes immiserating millions abroad. After a certain point, we grow weary from it all and would much rather ignore it. We are busy and troubled enough without having to empathize with so much pain and suffering.

In light of these points, what would the alternative be? If empathy is insufficient on its own, how best do we go about making constructive and ethical decisions?

It’s hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions. That’s why job interviews can be more meritocratic – and less prone to sexism or racism – when they don’t include a free-wheeling “getting to know you” section, relying instead on structured tests. Tyler Cowen, the blogger and economist, recommends soliciting feedback not by asking “what do you think?” – the personalised version – but “what do most people think?”

Instead of empathy, Bloom concludes, we need compassion: a cooler, more rational, “more distanced love, kindness and concern for others”. A relative of his undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t like medical staff who overflow with empathy: “He gets the most from doctors who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain.” As the Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey wrote, before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes: that way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. But if you want to help them, staying planted in your own shoes may be preferable. Sure, I could feel your pain. But wouldn’t you rather I did something about it?

In short, it would appear that, as with many things, the best course of action is a balanced one — we try our best to really feel for the suffering of others while keeping just enough of a distance to have a clear head on how to determine the best course of action. It seems sensible, and I can personally relate with both extremes: owing to my own bouts of depression and compassion fatigue, I find myself at times to be either too distant or too empathetic, and in either state I feel off. It is only when I have struck that delicate golden mean between empathy and dispassion that I feel hopeful in making a decision. But such an arrangement can be difficult to maintain without conscious effort, and one can only be so emotional or so distant before breaking down.

But that is just my experience and observation. What about you all?

Featured Image -- 6073

The complete guide to procrastinating at work

Eupraxsophy:

The perfect post for starting the post-Labor Day workweek. I can certainly relate with a lot of what is stated here, in both my personal and professional life. It is nice to see more scientific attention centered on what is no doubt an increasingly common issue in the modern world. As it turns out, there is a rhyme and reason to procrastination beyond mere fatigue or laziness — in fact, it is a completely different creature altogether.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Some research says the best way to spark creativity is to walk away and that the best ideas come from those least-expected “aha!” moments. So maybe procrastination isn’t such a bad thing after all. Or is time spent on those cat memes taking its toll? Can procrastinating ever be a source of productivity?

Here’s the complete guide to procrastinating at work:

Clever people procrastinate smartly

The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of a particularly intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found the group procrastinated productively. Some used procrastination as a trigger for a helpful amount of stress needed to ignite positive action. Others saw it as a “thought incubator”: They put off making a decision because they wanted to fully process it before finding a solution.

Procrastinate using your to-do list

The same study also found that the tasks the science competition winners were doing while avoiding work were helping in other areas of their…

View original 695 more words

The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

On Depression, Suicide, and Being a Good Person

The psychologist Rollo May once noted that “depression is the inability to construct a future”. Whatever the scientific merits of that observation, I believe it offers a reasonable explanation for how someone could do something that most of us would find impossible: consciously ending their own lives, often regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances. If one is unable to see any point to their lives, or to conceive of any future beyond the painful past and present that is all they know, then what other choice to they have, as far as they can see?

Obviously, depression and suicidal ideation are fundamentally personal matters that affect each individual differently, so I am reluctant to generalize about how it feels, where it stems from, and so on. Please take this as the uneducated stream of consciousness of one person and nothing more.

All I can say is that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety (both thankfully far milder than most), as well as someone familiar with the subject through loved ones and personal research, I have learned one valuable thing: no expression of love or validation is too small. Every little bit counts. No matter how futile it may seem, at the very least we must try.

I have heard too many stories of people being brought back from the brink of suicide and despair by the spontaneous phone call of a loved one, or the random act of kindness from a stranger. Humans inherently seek out validation and meaning in their lives; as a social and sentient species, we require both love and a sense of purpose. Simply being acknowledged by another human being, or being given something to work towards — a charitable cause, the making of art, the caring of others — is enough to enrich our lives and keep us going.

There is little I can say that is not already known: that suicide is irreversible, that depression and mental illness are nothing to be ashamed of and suffer alone with, that the people around you care and want you to stay. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how much we remind ourselves of these things, or how much we try to be there for others, the tragedy of the human condition continues. Many of us will be or feel powerless to help ourselves or others. In response to tragedy, we will reflect, act accordingly in the short term, but then move on until the next grim reminder.

Of course, this is not to discourage people from seeking help or offering it — doing good is still valuable and necessary regardless of whether bad things continue to happen. Over the years, I have learned from both personal experience and the accounts of others, that no matter what your mental status — depressed, suicidal, satisfied, etc — doing good for others feels deeply uplifting and self-actualizing. After all, we need to start somewhere, and in such a cruel world, no act of goodness is too small. It will always matter to someone, perhaps enough to save their lives. What have we got to lose in the process?

Ultimately, my point is that we must remain vigilant in our goodness and conscientiousness, to be kind and loving to as many of our fellow humans as possible. As the Scottish author Ian Maclaren rightly advised, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. In doing so, we can better our chances at enriching, if not saving, both others’ lives and our own. Even if it does not work out — if people continue to suffer, act self-destructively, or remain unmoved to act morally — at the very least we can say that we did very sincere best, and will continue to do so as long as human suffering on both an individual and societal level remains.

If you have read up to this point, thank you, and remember that I am always here for you, whether you’re an acquaintance or my very closest loved one. Your value as a person is all the same. Try me, you’ve got nothing to lose and no judgement to contend with. I know I can seem distant and unavailable, but believe me, I can and will make the time. It is hardly an inconvenience. On the contrary, it would be my honor. Be well my readers.

Robin Williams and the Tragedy of the Comedian

The recent death of  iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams has understandably lead to much shock and sadness, especially in light of the fact that he had committed suicide. Needless to say, there are no shortage of eulogies and reflections related to his legacy, accomplishments, and characters — what one would expect when such a titanic and beloved personality departs so suddenly — as well as discussions centered on his lifetime struggle with addiction and depression (which was nonetheless masked or mitigated in the public eye by his consistent lightheartedness and energy).

While I can go at length about this matter myself, or share a trove of excellent pieces covering everything there is to know and appreciate about Williams, I will stick to one that I found especially informative and relevant.

Over at Cracked, David Wong wrote an engaging piece that explored why it is that so many energetic, humorous, and seemingly well-adjusted people — celebrity or otherwise — end up as unlikely victims of suicide. I recommend you read the whole article, as it does a good job of mixing in thoughtful musings with the magazine’s characteristic wit and humor (which in this instance I found appropriately more tactful than usual). The crux of it is this:

Every time [a funny person makes] a joke around you, they’re doing it because they instinctively and reflexively think that’s what they need to do to make you like them. They’re afraid that the moment the laughter stops, all that’s left is that gross, awkward kid everyone hated on the playground.

I can attest to these both by observation and experience. I am very insecure about my personality and personal merits, which is one reason I indulge in sharing knowledge or being a clown, both online and off — it makes me feel valuable and desired, even though I also subsequently feel terrified of the “real” me being discovered and subsequently disliked.

Thankfully, my own struggles with self-loathing and the subsequent depression have never been bad enough to lead to addiction or self-destructive behavior. In fact, as I have gotten older, I have graciously been made to feel very accepted by many people despite my flaws, which has helped me passed my personal hangups, slowly but surely.

Speaking more broadly, one big point to glean from the article — and from the many similar observations of suicide victims appearing well on the surface — is that most people suffer in silence. Even those of us without depression or a serious mental illness feel the need to mask our hardships, internalize our negative feelings, and opt not to be a “burden” to those around us.

For many people, the alternative coping mechanism is to act out, to find worth and validation as someone entertaining and fun. One finds a purpose in brightening others’ days so that they do not suffer the same way you do. Imparting laughter and happiness is a way to gain social acceptance while also feeling like you’re doing some good in the world, which is always a nice feeling no matter what your mental state.

It is thus little wonder that so many troubled people gravitate to behaving or embracing seemingly contradictory behavior. It gives meaning and uplights their moods and others’. It is also a way to lighten the pain and burden of depression by making it more bearable, or even funny. What else is there to do with so much intractable sadness and hopelessness — aside from escaping into mind-altering substances, or ending your mind altogether.

Obviously, not all happy and humorous people harbor deep-seated and often fatal pain. Rather, it is that not all sad and pained people seem to clearly be that way. Symptoms of depression manifest in many different ways, as do the ways that people deal with them, so generalizations should be made with caution. But clearly, there is a pattern of suicides being unexpected and unlikely.

The observation that sufferers of depression are often those who we least expect is somewhat of a cliche, but clearly it is something that needs reminding. Too often we remain shocked and surprised when someone like Williams commits suicide, but maybe that reflects the strong sociocultural pressure to keep one’s sadness buried as much as possible. Maybe it testifies to how strong the stigma of depression, suicide, and addiction are, such that people would rather put on a mask and trudge through it at their own risk, rather than let it become exposed or admitting to a problem.

Of course, these are all just visceral musings and generalizations, not any sort of sociocultural prescription. Tragedies like this naturally elicit a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching, perhaps because there is something fundamentally relatable with how people choose to cope with their struggles, whether through humor, lashing out, or addiction.

My thoughts on all this are incomplete. Expect more later my friends. Until then, feel free to share your own ideas as usual.

 

 

 

Why Do We Forget Names So Easily?

As someone with a track record for social awkwardness, I can certainly vouch for the discomfort of forgetting one’s name, especially if it is a recurring problem with the same individual (which I am also guilty of). 

Over the years, however, I have learned to take it in stride, partly because it is not in bad faith — and I make clear from the get-go that I am bad with names in general — but more so because I have noticed so many other people, no matter how socially experienced and conscientious, have the same issue.

But why is the habit of forgetting names, especially after first meeting someone, so prevalent? Well, as always, the astute writers at The Atlantic have tackled this interesting and fundamentally human problem. It turns out, there are several factors involved at any given time.

  • The next-in-line effect: When you encounter a group of strangers with outstretched hands, your mind turns into a scared 9-year-old at the school talent show. You’re not watching the other contestants; you’re practicing your own routine. The process of both preparing to take in the others’ names and to say your own, as Esther Inglis-Arkell explained at i09, is so taxing that you don’t devote any brain power to actually learning the new names.

  • You’re not really that interested: Maybe you’re just making an appearance at this party and are planning to abscond shortly to a superior kick-back. Your level of interest can impact how well you remember something. “Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships,” Richard Harris, professor of psychology at Kansas State University, told ScienceDaily. “They would be more motivated to remember somebody’s name.”

  • A failure of working memory: There are two types of storage in the brain: Long-term and short-term. The short-term variety is called “working memory,” and it functions like a very leaky thermos. It doesn’t hold much and it spills stuff out all the time. “You can hold just a little bit of information there and if you don’t concentrate on it, it fades away rapidly,”Paul Reber, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, told me in an email. “Information like a name needs to be transferred to a different brain system that creates long-term memories that persist over time.”

  • Names are kind of pointless: To answer the famous question, there’s not much in a name, frankly. It doesn’t actually tell you anything about the person you’re meeting, and thus it doesn’t give your brain anything to cling to. Steve may love parkour, but he’d love it just as much if he were Samuel or Sheldon. “Human memory is very good at things like faces and factual information that connects well to other information you already know,” Reber said. Steve’s waxing enthusiastic about his trasseur training sticks in your brain because it adheres to other information you already know.Wasn’t District 13, that French parkour movie, really awesome? And hey, remember that time you studied abroad in Paris? All those little connections help solidify the memory of who Steve is and what he does. 

So there you have it — forgetting names is pretty much inherent to our psyche and cognitive ability (I especially relate with the first explanation). Of course, this is not an excuse to not make an honest effort at remembering, just proof that as long as we mean well, we should not feel bad, nor be judged, for honestly forgetting someone’s name once or twice at first. 

The Magic of Music Therapy

There can be little doubt that music has a remarkable impact on the human mind, not only in terms of emotion and feeling, but even with regards to mental health. The Guardian offers a glimpse into the benefits of music therapy, which is catching on as a treatment for people suffering dementia and other mental afflictions. It begins with the case of Vera and Jack Burrows.

Five and a half years into their very happy marriage, Jack had a stroke while roasting a chicken, and has never returned home. Ever since he’s been living in Station House care home in Crewe. Now 86, he’s lost his speech and has increasing memory problems, but his bawdy sense of humour is very much intact.

Vera, a very glamorous 84 with turquoise eye shadow and a cloud of blond hair, had accompanied Jack to a special music session at the care home run by the music therapist Greg Hanford, director of MusAbility, and musicians from the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra.

Overseen by Manchester University, it is part of a 10-week pilot project called Music in Mind, funded by Care UK, which runs 123 residential homes for elderly people. The aim is to find out if classical music can improve communication and interaction and reduce agitation for people in the UK living with dementia – estimated to number just over 800,000 and set to rise rapidly as the population ages.

The Crewe project is the fourth Music in Mind pilot. An assessment of the first three, by the Manchester-based thin-ktank New Economy, found that some participants no longer had to be medicated after taking part. Carers reported reduced agitation, better moods and improved posture; residents who had been slumped in their chairs raised their heads to take an active role.

“The power of music therapy enables, excites, enthuses, entertains,” one musician told New Economy. “It’s like opening the window of a stuffy room and allowing scented fresh air to waft in, lifting the spirits, changing the nature of the room.”

Pretty touching stuff, to say the least. Whether or not music therapy has any clear physiological impact, the fact that it can improve moods, less anxieties, and encourage more activity makes this approach very promising.

What do you think?

The Amazing Language of Music

If you’re like me, you’ve had many a bad episode in life alleviated by music. Whether you’re stressed, sad, romantic, or energetic, there seems to be the right melody out there to help mitigate (or if need be, amplify) your mood. Similarly, there’s always the right song, band, or genre to listen to for a particular circumstance, from studying to work to exercise. Music serves as an incredibly versatile form of therapy, consolation, palliative, and more.

Now several studies have confirmed what many of us have long experienced: music has an amazing impact on our mood, cognition, and overall well-being. In fact, it stimulates and conveys ideas no differently than any spoken language, as concluded by a recent study reported in PolicyMic:

Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a 2008 study focused on observing the brain responses of musicians while they played music, while a 2013 study looked at the fMRI recorded brain activity of listeners as music was played. Taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of why exactly music influences us the way it does. It comes down to one simple truth: Music actually is a special kind of language, one that works on our emotions rather than our reason.

One needn’t look to closely to notice the sheer complexity of musical compositions, which look very much like a written script onto themselves. In fact, as a more detailed account of the study reveals:

In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put musicians into an MRI with an instrument and told them to play both memorized and improvised pieces of music. When the musician improvised, another musician was put in the control room to play along. The findings were striking: When the two musicians played together, their brains responded exactly as they do during spoken conversation, with one difference. The regions that generally process the meaning of language shut down — the music was simply a communication impulse in structure and intent.

But what, it gets more interesting!

Music acts on the brain of a listener as if a recorded musician were speaking to you too. The 2013 study by researchers from Finland, the UK and Denmark went even further. They exposed subjects to different types of music, ranging from the Beatles’ epic Abbey Road medley to a modern rendition of an Argentinian tango. The takeaway: The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.

The study found something even more striking, though. It isn’t just music in general that affects us: Every genre and every song is its own map to a unique combination of feelings and thoughts. As this video recording of an fMRI of a brain responding to tango music shows, our reactions to music can be profound.

This is precisely why quiet songs tend to make you more reflective or daydreamy, why upbeat, poppy songs energize you and make you want to dance, and why aggressive or fast-paced songs may inspire aggressive feelings or help drive the intensity of a workout. Music — like the words, tones, and ideas of any other spoken language — elicits a visceral reaction. And like the vagaries of language, different music has different effects on different people.

But perhaps the palpable finding is that music is as vital to our well-being as social interaction.

different study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University suggests that listening to music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,” even stimulating dopamine release in the brain — a chemical affiliated strongly with pleasure, reward and even addiction. Like speaking with a dear friend or hearing something sweet from someone you love, music is a conversation, one the brains of listeners and players alike need to keep having.

As someone whose recurring bouts of depression and anxiety are regularly kept in check by music and companionship alike, I can certainly vouch for this conclusion.

Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better.