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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Natural state of the brain without emotion? Happiness

Closeup. (c) Psychology Press.
In what would seem to validate the Stoic notion of happiness sans 'the passions', an interesting study was published this month by researchers at the University of Iowa. The article, published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, tells of a man "Roger" who almost all of his limbic system (an area of the brain that controls emotion, smell, and long term memory). Roger's limbic system was lost 28 years ago due to an extremely rare case of herpes simplex encephalitis.

Cases of damage to the limbic system have previously shown a loss of long term memory and smell, as Roger experiences, but also effect emotion.

One interesting point here was that Roger, absent his emotional center, nevertheless seems eternally happy. Although his short term brain function and IQ are unaffected (above average) and he can act normally in these cases, holding conversations and so on, Roger rarely complains or worries. His family observes that he seems to have a happier disposition now than before the damage. Oddly, Roger is not a robotic emotionless mind one might expect, but instead laughs and smiles in very natural ways.

Unfortunately, However, Roger's lack of long term memory and other side effects are severe handicaps that requires him to be cared for. But this says interesting things about the role of emotion in the brain, and the natural state of the brain minus the emotional doings of the limbic system. To a large degree, Stoic practice is about learning to condition mental tendencies that we now know to involve the limbic system. The result of Stoic practice is also not a 'robotic' existence, but rather one of "Stoic Joy". In other words, Stoicism is not about the removal of all feelings - just what it calls 'pathos', or mental illness - the overpowering all-consuming passions. What is left is 'eudaimonia' - the content and flourishing life. This, while keeping our long term memories and sense of smell, of course!

Speaking of memory, this reminds me of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness/attention and 'still mind'. Buddhists recognize that much of our anxiety comes from ruminating and dwelling on many various concerns which are not things of the moment, and for which rumination is not productive. Roger's loss of long term memory could be a reason why he doesn't generally experience 'worry'. Through Buddhist mindfulness practice, we learn to put away concerns for which there is no reason to dwell on, and focus on the 'now'. Roger focuses on the 'now' by default. Certainly, we would not wish Roger's condition on anyone, but studying his condition brings further enlightenment to how the brain operates, and comparing this to the role of different spiritual practices might possibly illuminate.

The researchers involved were: Justin S. Feinstein, David Rudrauf, Sahib S. Khalsa, Martin D. Cassell, Joel Bruss, Thomas J. Grabowski, and Daniel Tranel.

Many thanks to Neuroskeptic for writing on this, and to "snailman100" on the International Stoic Forum for alerting me to this item.

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