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MRI Images Show the Brain's Happy Spot

By Michael Cole

Many theories of what makes a person happy have been developed but this subjective state for each individual person remains an elusive, unquantifiable, concept. However, from a neurological perspective, scientists can use neuro-imaging technology, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, to try to locate the parts of the brain that light up when participants report themselves experiencing happiness.

This is exactly the focus of research done in Japan at Kyoto University. The results of these observations revealed that happiness is a mix of positive emotions and feelings of satisfaction all coming together in one particular region of the brain known as the precuneus. The precuneus is located in the medial parietal lobe of the brain, which is the area that becomes most active when the mind is conscious and alert.

How people experience emotions differs from individual to individual, according to the research. In some cases, people’s happiness registered most intensely when they received a compliment. Whatever generates these positive feelings related to satisfaction, however, can be considered the cause of the subjective experience of happiness. What neural mechanism is behind these emotions still remains elusive, however. Discovering this cause will someday provide researchers with an objective means of quantifying individual subjective happiness.

How Happy is Happy?

The present study used MRI scans on participants. Next they were asked to take a survey which investigated and scored how happy participants were in general, the intensity with which they felt their emotions, and how satisfied they were with their lives.

The data collected and analyzed in this way showed that for people with higher scores on the happiness surveys, there was more grey matter in the precuneus area of the brain. It was extrapolated that, for people who feel happiness most intensely and sadness least intensely, their precuneus area was larger in comparison with those who experienced less intense feelings of happiness and more intense feelings of sadness. The ability to find meaning in life was another trait associated with a larger precuneus. 

The essentially philosophical nature of investigating an abstract human emotion like happiness was originally undertaken as far back as ancient times by people like Aristotle and Plato. These modern discoveries add a new element to this human search. 

The implications of the study support other research linked to mindfulness meditation which showed people who meditated for at least a half-hour daily had increased gray matter in the region of the precuneus also.

To learn more about your health, wellness and fitness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic in Minnetonka, Minn.

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