Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, Volume 1, 23.5.06.

Set aside the specific question of which neurotransmitters are at issue and ask what causes life's tiny joys. What impact might variations from the norm have? How might we benefit from more awareness of the cumulative impact of an almost unnoticed string of small positive events in a day? Geologist turned cognitive neuroscientist, M.B. Bayly, here proffers a speculative analysis - based on 10-years of reading and thought - about this question. Bayly turned to contemplation of the brain's activity when, in 1994, he retired as a full professor of geology from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, upstate New York.

Professor Bayly s first public foray into his chosen new discipline was in 2005 when the journal, Medical Hypotheses, published some of his thoughts on the topic. The journal is not peer reviewed in the traditional way, perhaps because its editorial board, replete with a nobel laureate, is exploring the difficult terrain that lies at the interdisciplinary intersection of neurophysiology, psychology, psychiatry and neurochemistry. Editor-in-chief of Medical Hypotheses, Bruce Charlton, is an M.D. and reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University. Helen Gavaghan


by Brian Bayly

"The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden by their simplicity and familiarity"
--- Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Whenever two ideas come together in one's mind with a good fit or good match there is a positive hedonic response. Usually it is so small as to pass unnoticed. Yet like raindrops in a rain storm occurrences are abundant, and I argue here that their widespread prevalence makes them a significant driver of daily human affairs. I call this phenomenon - - by which two well-matched observations of any sort cause pleasure - - link-joy. I argue that the neuro process underlying link-joy is ripe for study. By a small amount of reflection on his or her experience of life, a person can establish a conclusion about human brains to which specialists in neuro-science have not yet woken up. My interest in this process is in the brains of so-called normal people, but I note that some experience of link-joy is absent from those with autism and with Capgras Syndrome. I argue that a wider awareness of link-joy holds promise of contributing to an improved stance vis-a-vis political activity and other daily affairs.

PEOPLE What follows is an exercise in joining the dots. Separately and collectively, people have accumulated innumerable facts about pleasure, pain and what produces them, but the generalization in the opening sentence has hardly been recognized (1).

Ideas is intended in a broad sense. Examples are:

Two words that rhyme; at the second of two rhyming words, a tiny pleasure is felt. If it were not, rhymes would not be as popular as they are.

A musical note, first expected and then heard. If I listen to musical phrases I have heard before, I can sometimes sound the final note in my head before it is actually played. Then when it is played, the match with what was anticipated is part of the pleasure of listening.

Jigsaw puzzles: suppose I focus on a certain location where I would like to find the piece that fits. One after another I try several promising pieces that disappoint --- they almost fit, but not quite. Then I find one more and tchuk! There is something agreeable about an exact fit.

A reader might think, certainly I enjoy jigsaws, but so what? What is happening in my brain and why does it matter? I think that neuro-chemical and electrical events in closely related locations of the same region of my cortex precipitate the third component of my hypothesis - the tiny joy experienced.

There are more examples: jokes, Eureka moments, repeated motifs in wallpaper and throughout architecture, all kinds of rhythm, a memory and a present event, an intention and an achieved result (in painting and other arts, and in crafts and sports --- especially the sweet-spot sensation) and more.

This mass of data --- well recognized in fragments but not well integrated --- was formalized in 1964 when Arthur Koestler(2) invented the term bisociation in his book, The Act of Creation.

The term link-joy serves the same purpose (if I mention a link, two linked items are implied). But Koestler did not conceptualise the third element in my hypothesis, that of consequential pleasure or joy. As far as I know, Nicholas Humphrey was the first person to note the resulting hedonic response to a wide range of paired events. The range is so wide and the effect often so small that the word joy may seem to be an exaggeration; internal reward is a term in use that is perhaps more suitable but unfortunately more cumbersome - and loaded with existing scientific associations in the minds of psychiatrists and psychologists.

The two properties, commonness and smallness, are intertwined and a comparison with sounds is illustrative. Imagine a person shouting in your ear: the intensity may be painful but one's ear can register it. Next, imagine a sound one-hundredth as intense --- not so bad! Cut the intensity down to one-hundredth again, then again, then again. The same system from ear through inner ear to auditory cortex still senses the effect even when cut down to one-billionth of the original. Comparably, imagine the pleasure from some strongly sensed moment of matching and, if you can, a tiny joy with one-billionth of the intensity. It is not surprising that effects at the small end of the range have gained little attention. But I claim, first, that they are detectable, and, secondly, that through abundance they have cumulative power, as do raindrops.

A prime example is conversation. A conversation resembles a linear jigsaw puzzle: Chris makes a remark and Pat's reply, though novel, fits onto Chris's opening; then Chris's next remark fits onto Pat's and so on. But if Pat is inattentive and makes replies that do not link on, no pleasure results and the conversation peters out. Then again the experience might be of two people chatting for ten minutes. One or other or both might say: it was a treat. But in my view it was not a single treat, rather it was an accumulation of small internal rewards of which at least some were due to matching, fitting or linking. Indeed, in many conversations conducted for pleasure, the content is not highly significant. The pleasure comes mainly from the good rapport enjoyed.

Enlarging from this case, we come to the example where one might say, "how was your day, dear? A day with abundant link-joys is a good day and a day that lacks them, when nothing seems to go right, is not. And what of a good marriage or a good career: good wages do not make a job satisfying --- job satisfaction, when sifted sufficiently fine, turns out to be highly dependent on link-joy.

The burden so far is that anyone attuned to introspection can assure themselves that link-joy is both ubiquitous and significant; it only needs to be pointed out to be seen everywhere. Yet professionals in psychology and neuroscience have not studied it directly.

The next section shows that brain observations give some substance to the idea, but only tangentially.

SCIENCE Joy is the least well-studied of emotions --- Melvin Konner.

Of relevant studies, a number have tangentially illuminated possible aspects of my central hypothesis without actually fully doing so. One set of experiments involved subjects being exposed to a sequence of items. These might be a series of pictures or written words or spoken words. After this preparation, each subject is then given a second series in which some items but not all are repetitions from the first set. During this second set of exposures the subject's brain is monitored, for example by electro-encephalography (EEG). Two average EEG traces are then constructed. One is the average brain wave output when the items had not been seen before, the other average was when the items had been seen before. With suitable precautions, the difference between the two average traces can be attributed to the repetition or familiarity effect.

Using such methods, studies in a range of literature between 1992 and 1998 showed that familiarity produces a broad positive peak of several microvolts occurring about 300 to 600 milliseconds after presentation of the familiar item(3). Catherine Tallon-Baudry and Olivier Bertrand reported also in 1999 that there are changes in amplitude in the gamma range (25-40 Hz)(4), whilst a group at Washington University, St Louis noted extra activity in up to ten locations in fMRI images(5), and a group in Cardiff noted changes in skin conductance (6). Clearly the presentation of a familiar item provokes a welter of activity in the brain. But what crucial neural circuits are active and what molecules are released or absorbed in the unique kernel of the familiarity response --- this degree of detail is less easy to obtain and has not been sought?

Other examples of tangentially supportive work are:-
In 1994 Mireille Besson and associates (7) explored the musical experience already described, where a listener anticipates a note and then hears it. Her group's intent was to isolate aspects of the physical experience of listening to music which can be illuminated by identifying the difference in brain wave output between musicians and non musicians. Besson let her subjects hear musical phrases where the subject knew what should come next; the note was slightly delayed and then played, EEG being recorded throughout. The note that matched the expectation evoked a slow positive wave very similar to that evoked when subjects had observed the second picture of a matching pair.

But this particular result - supporting my speculative hypothesis concerning the neurally interlinked cortical and subcortical nature of the normal, daily hedonic response - was submerged because it was tangential to the group's more narrowly confined primary research intent.

Nora Breen and associates (8) studied the process by which faces are recognized. They wanted to clarify the brain's pathways in identification and delusional misidentification. In their work they used the phrase - "an affective response to familiar stimuli" - seeming to have in mind the idea that any familiar stimulus yields an affective response. But their discussion confines itself to faces. Specialists tend to specialize; the big picture is not their business.
Axel Mecklinger and associates (9) used fMRI and, of all the experimenters mentioned, only they used the terms internal reward and expectancy-confirmation in their report. Their meaning was that there is a neuro-physiological manifestion of paired events that is "either an internal reward or an expectancy-confirmation mechanism". The idea that confirmation of an expectancy, which simply means congruence of activity in two different parts of the cortex, triggers a third event, namely an internal reward --- how did they miss that?

To repeat, I am hypothesizing that the phenomenon has three components --- two matching concepts, largely in the cortex, and a hedonic response or internal reward, largely subcortical. Perhaps more accurately, the response is activated by the abstract relation between two concepts --- a matching or resemblance relation. If resemblance between two sounds and resemblance between two pictures can act similarly, the trigger must be high up in the association cortex. Two memories also can do the job --- the resemblance relation can arise from a wide range of inputs and seems rather abstract, yet it has an unmistakable neuro-chemical effect that is sensed as pleasure.

If cognitive scientists are to pursue the topic of elucidating the neurochemical, neurophysiological and genetic underpinnings of the normally experienced hedonic responses of daily life they might gain insight from studies in brain evolution. The data suggest conservatism --- if a new task in the brain can be performed by adapting components or procedures that are already in use, this will be done rather than developing something totally new. In the present context, this means that if pleasure from conversation is already being enjoyed --- if the neural links yielding this result are already in place --- then in a jigsaw situation, if the brain yields pleasure at all it will be by the same neural links. The externals of the two contexts seem rather different but by the time the signals have reached the association cortex, the similarity of two visual signals and the similarity of two semantic signals have become similarities of much the same neurophysiological kind (10).

The upshot is that wherever neuroscience bears on the topic of link-joy, what is known supports the idea or is at least compatible with it. But neuroscience does not yet bear directly; the strongest support for the link-joy proposal remains each individual person's own experiences in daily life.

When the people lead, the leaders will follow --- Anon

Until a better system is discovered, we have to slog on with democracy. As a system, democracy has defects; prominent among these is its fragility in face of fear. Stirring up fear is an often-used technique for nudging a democratic population into a course of action that a less fearful population would not pursue. Thus political health depends on a population's fears being within reason and realistic, not exaggerated and with out-of-proportion influence.

Bad news and disasters grab one's attention; happy events tend to be smaller in scale (e.g. weddings) or less strongly felt (e.g. the pleasure of a conversation). News media need their audiences' attention; hence they broadcast more bad news than good. And the media are constantly finding more ways to intrude into the lives of more people. A consequence is that increasingly people internalize a distorted view of how the world is. The actual world is more benign, with fewer dangers and threats, than people believe who are influenced by the news.

For balanced political action, we need a population not distorted toward fears, we need a population that is fully aware of the good inherent in most people and the comfort-level of most people's lives (here I refer to mental comfort, which can be enjoyed even by people whose physical state might be seen as uncomfortable). And a person's mental comfort is closely allied to an adequate stream of link-joys. The analogy with raindrops and rainstorms can be called on again: a sufficient number of link-joys can make fresh a person's day or year despite the smallness of each single one. If people in a democracy will be more aware of link-joy and more aware that we bring it to one another in a constant stream, we are less likely to be thrown off balance or hoodwinked by scare tactics springing out of commerce or politics. Contradicting the opening quotation, this aspect of things that is most important to us is not hidden by its simplicity and familiarity --- it is in full view, experienced by everybody frequently and directly, and simply needs to be noticed. By recognizing link-joy, by joining the dots, a clearer picture of our communities' aspirations can be usefully brought into view.


(1) Essentially the same generalization is made in: Humphrey, N. K., 1973: The illusion of beauty. Perception 2, pp 429-439. Fost, J. W., 1999: Neural rhythmicity, feature binding and serotonin: a hypothesis. The Neuroscientist 5, pp 79-85. It is expressed less completely in: McCrone, J., 1992: The Myth of Irrationality. London: Macmillan, especially pp 236 and 292.

(2) Koestler, A.,1964: The Act of Creation. London: Macmillan.

(3) Doyle, M. C. and Rugg, M. D., 1998: Word repetition within-and across-visual fields: an event-related potential study. Neuropsychologia 36, pp 1403-1415. Paller, K. A. and Kutas, M., 1992: Brain potentials during memory retrieval provide neurophysiological support for the distinction between conscious recollection and priming. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 4, pp 375-391. Ranganath, C. and Paller, K. A. , 1999: Frontal brain potentials during recognition are modulated by requirements to retrieve perceptual detail. Neuron 22, pp 605-613. Senkfor, A. J. and van Petten, C., 1998: Who said what? An event-related potential investigation of source and item memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition 24, pp 1005-1025.

(4) Tallon-Baudry, C. and Bertrand, O., 1999: Oscillatory gamma activity in humans and its role in object representation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3, pp 151-162.

(5) McDermott, K. B., Jones, T. C., Peterson, S. E., Lageman, S. K. and Roediger, H. L., 3rd. 2000: Retrieval success is accompanied by enhanced activation in anterior prefrontal cortex during recognition memory: an event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12, pp 965-976.

(6) Ellis, H. D. and Lewis, M. B. 2001 Capgras delusion: a window on face recognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5, pp 149-156.

(7) Besson, M., Faita, F. and Requin, J., 1994: Brain waves associated with musical incongruities differ for musicians and non-musicians. Neuroscience Letters 168, pp 101-105.

(8) Breen, N., Caine, D. and Coltheart, M., 2000: Models of face recognition and delusional misidentification: a critical review. Cognitive Neurophysiology 17, pp 55-71.

(9) Mecklinger, A., von Zerssen, C., Opitz, B. and Cramon, D. Y., 2000: Event-related fMRI dissociates recollection-based and illusory recognition memory. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Supplement S (conference abstracts), 139.

(10) Bayly, B. 2005: Concept-matching in the brain depends on serotonin and gamma-frequency shifts. Medical Hypotheses 65, pp 149-151.

The above bibliography had an IT collision, and it is in the process of reclamation and repair by the site editor, Helen Gavaghan. 28th July, 2012.

This piece was first posted 20th May, 2006. It was corrected on-line between then and 23rd May. This version (07.25:g.m.t.) is the final version. Letters are invited.

A brief biography of Maurice Brian Bayly.

Professor Bayly was born in 1929. After leaving the British Army in 1949 he gained a B.A.and M.Sc. from The University of Cambridge. For five summers between 1951 and 1955 he undertook geological exploration of Svalbard in the Arctic. Then he went to Antarctica with the Falkland Island Dependencies' Survey (later the British Antarctic Survey). Whilst there he set up the base on Danco Island and another at Cape Reclus. He penetrated to the Forbidden Plateau via Bayly Glacier in 1957.

The Bayly Glacier is named after Professor Bayly.

Between 1958 and 1960 Professor Bayly worked for the Australian government in New Guinea and Australia. He gained his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1962. Until his retirement in 1994 he taught at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


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