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Archive for the ‘Brain’ Category

It turns out pleasure comes in a bottle — albeit an expensive one.

That’s what researchers discovered recently when they tested the neural activity of study participants after showing them expensive and inexpensive wines.

The results showed increased brain activity in the the medial orbitofrontal cortex — an area of the brain believed to encode pleasure related to taste, odors and music — when participants tasted “pricey” wines. They also found that inflating the price of a bottle of wine enhanced a person’s experience of drinking it, based on the corresponding neural activity.

But here’s the interesting part.

It was a blind taste test. Participants never knew the quality of the wine. They were just told the price. In fact, researchers presented two of the wines twice, once with the true price tag, and again with a fake one. They also passed off a $90 bottle of wine for one they said was $10 and showed a $5 dollar bottle as one costing $45.

Researchers say that their study demonstrates how subjective beliefs come into play with respect to the quality of an experience.

“If you believe that the experience is better, even though it’s the same wine, the rewards center of the brain encodes it as feeling better,” said Antonio Rangel, associate professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology and lead researcher.

Marketers have known this for years. This just confirms it.

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Could naturally increased levels of blood serotonin improve mood?

One Canadian researcher thinks so. He argues that elevated levels of serotonin may be an alternative to drug-induced mood improvement.

What are some strategies that could elevate serotonin? The scientist looked at the research surrounding four main areas.

First, he says self-induced changes in mood itself can influence serotonin synthesis. Thinking positive and happy thoughts seem to have some effect on serotonin levels, which in turn improve mood — a kind of self-improvement “loop.”

Second, he says exposure to bright light has a positive effect on serotonin levels.

Third, he says that exercise, especially to the point of fatigue, can improve serotonin synthesis.

And finally, he says diet (specifically tryptophan) can improve one’s naturally produced levels of serotonin. The researcher cautions that just eating foods high in serotonin (such as bananas) may not improve mood. That’s because the serotonin in the bananas doesn’t cross what he calls the “blood–brain barrier.”

What does this all mean?

It means there may be viable alternatives to drugs in improving mood and ultimately adding to one’s well-being. A note of caution — that does not mean antidepressants are bad or harmful. On the contrary. Many have found them to literally be life-savers. But this thread of thinking should give some confidence to those who are averse or reluctant to take antidepressants. Some mood improvement and happiness can be achieved, it seems, without them.

Source: How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Simon N. Young. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience 32 (6) 394-399. 2007

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Pop a sugar cube in your mouth and what happens? You taste sweetness, right? Pretty simple.

Not so, according to researchers. Simple pleasures actually hide a complex dance between the brain, the nervous system and a host of chemical or electrical reactions — all of which might hold important keys to your overall satisfaction and happiness.

Take the desire for something pleasurable. Is that the same as the result itself? Say you want to water ski and imagine the spray on your face, the tug of the boat and the bright, blue sky above as you crisscross across the smooth, watery surface. Will the event match your expectations? Perhaps. Both may give you the same pleasure.

But “wanting” and “having” something may also have two different outcomes in the brain, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. In other words, you can gain pleasure from each independent of the other. For example, the researchers suggest that some drug addicts relapse because their changed brains make them vulnerable to wanting the drugs, even after the symptoms of withdrawal have long passed.

In practical terms, desire holds its own rewards. We can actually experience pleasure and thus some level of satisfaction by wanting something, regardless of whether or not it becomes reality.

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Researchers think they have found the location of our optimistic view of the future deep within our brains.

In an article published in Nature magazine, co-authors, Elizabeth Phelps of New York University and Tali Sharot of University College London say that a small front part of the mid-brain (which is deep behind the eyes) activates when people are thinking optimistically about future events. The more optimistic the thoughts, the more activity in that area of the brain.

Researchers also say that same area of the brain seems to malfunction in people suffering with depression.

Fifteen people were given brain scans for the study while they were asked to think about “future possibilities.” When the participants thought about good events both the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala, which is involved in emotional responses including fear, were activated. But the correlation with optimism was biggest with the cingulate cortex.

The same study also found that people tended to think that happier events were closer in time and more vivid than the bad ones, even if they had no reason to believe it, according to Phelps.

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Anything that contributes to a person’s satisfaction or happiness can be considered a “resource.” Thus, a spouse, car, musical instrument, that trip to Hawaii, your job or even the mother of all resources — money — can be considered a satisfaction or happiness resource. Each contributes in some way to our overall levels of satisfaction and happiness.

Based on our buying behavior, you’d think that material things are the single largest and most important source of satisfaction. And for many they are. We’re buying all the time. Buying is very satisfying. It feels good. It stimulates and rewards us both physically and psychologically.

But it may not be our most important resource. That’s because resources related to purchasing are usually expendable. They don’t last long. Take the trip to Hawaii. You’re there for a week and the trip is very satisfying, with the lapping waves, the breathtaking sunsets and the cool Mai-Tai on the veranda.

But then it’s over and so is the trip as a source of extended satisfaction. We have our memories, but it’s not the same. And unless we have unlimited or outstanding wealth, another trip to the islands is going to be awhile. And even if we go back, it may not be as satisfying as the first time when everything was new and fresh to us.

Perhaps our greatest satisfaction and happiness resource is not a purchase but our mental ability — the ability to think, dream, act, create, feel, manage and even control. Our minds are the ultimate satisfaction and happiness resource. Even a purchase starts with a mental act. How you think, what you think, and even why you think it have a greater impact on your overall satisfaction and happiness than perhaps any single source at your disposal. If you are not satisfied or happy, you might start looking there first.

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Recent neuroscience research has unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding how the brain handles positive emotion. For example, on its website the Society of Neuroscience points towards research projects that looked at the differences in the brain between pleasant and unpleasant emotions.

In one study of brain-damaged individuals, for example, researchers found that patients who were prone to pathological laughing or bursts of euphoria tended to have damage on the right side of the brain. In contrast, patients who were prone to pathological crying or depression tended to have damage on the left side of the brain.

Another study which measured brain activity indicated that pleasant film clips, pleasant tastes and cash incentives increase left-side brain activity near the forehead. Unpleasant film clips, unpleasant tastes and a threat of cash loss raise right-side brain activity near the forehead.

Even infants apparently show these differences. Babies who tend to cry when separated from their mothers also tend to have lower left and higher right-sided prefrontal activity compared with non-wailers.

What does this mean for the rest of us? It strongly implies that there are biological (and even genetic) differences that account for our “sunny” or “sour” dispositions. Thus, while there is much about satisfaction and happiness we can control, there are some parts of both that we cannot.

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