"Neurologists 'work out the key to finding happiness'," claims The Independent. Japanese researchers claim to have found a link between reported happiness and an area of the brain called the precuneus.
The researchers recruited 51 young adult volunteers, scanned their brain structure and probed their happiness and emotions using questionnaires.
They found that more feelings of happiness were associated with a larger volume of the right precuneus. Other positive emotions and more purpose in life were also associated with greater volume in this region.
Importantly, we don't know whether the findings in this small sample of Japanese people could be generalised to everyone. We also can’t apply cause and effect – that is, whether precuneus volume is set at birth and so predetermines our emotions, or whether it could change depending on our emotions.
It is arguably simplistic to regard the brain as similar to the recent Disney film Inside Out – with specific regions of the brain linked to specific emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness.
However, as the researchers discuss, the brain does have a high degree of plasticity – it is possible for brain cells to change and adapt through different types of activity and exposures.
Previous studies have indicated that meditation might increase the volume of the precuneus, and may be linked to happiness. There is a growing body of evidence that mindfulness-based techniques, such as meditation, can improve a person’s wellbeing.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Kyoto University and other research institutes in Japan. It was funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science – Funding Program for Next Generation.
The media has generally taken these findings at face value, and could benefit from acknowledging the limitations of this cross-sectional study of a small and select population sample.
The Independent's headline "Neurologists 'work out the key to finding happiness'," is unsupported by the facts presented in the study.
The Daily Telegraph wrote: "Meditation increases the grey matter in a part of the brain which is linked to happiness, scientists have found," which implies this is one of the new findings the study produced. It was not.
The Telegraph wasn't alone in making this subtle mistake. The study referenced another study, which they said showed that this brain region structure could be changed through training, such as meditation, but they did not investigate or confirm this themselves.
A recent meta-analysis into whether meditation could change brain structure had mixed results. While the researchers did find some positive results, they also cited concerns about "publication bias and methodological limitations".
What kind of research was this?
This was a cross-sectional study which aimed to investigate whether subjective happiness is associated with specific brain features.
As the researchers say, happiness is a subjective experience that is important to humans, even to the extent that many philosophers and scholars have called it "the ultimate goal in life".
Previous studies have suggested that happiness has a strong hereditary component, and involves cognitive (mental processes of perception, memory, judgement, and reasoning) as well as emotional components. However, actual structural brain features associated with this feeling have remained elusive.
This study aimed to look at participants' brain structure on MRI scanners to see how this was associated with measures of reported subjective happiness and other emotions.
What did the research involve?
The research included 51 volunteers (average age 23) who had MRI scans and completed various psychological questionnaires assessing their feelings.
Subjective happiness was measured on a four-item Subjective Happiness Scale, positive and negative feelings on an Emotional Intensity Scale, anxiety on a State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, and other thoughts surrounding happiness on a Purpose in Life Scale.
All four of these questionnaires were Japanese versions, which have been validated for use in Japanese people.
The participants had MRI scans, and the researchers looked at the association between brain imaging findings and subjective happiness score, taking into account the influence of scores on the other scales.
What were the basic results?
Looking at the different psychological questionnaires, the researchers found that, unsurprisingly, greater subjective happiness was associated with positive emotions and higher purpose in life scores. Conversely, negative emotions and higher trait anxiety were associated with lower happiness scores.
Looking at the MRI scans, subjective happiness was linked to volume of the right precuneus, an area of the brain previously associated with feelings of ego or self-consciousness. Happiness score was not associated with any other brain region.
The researchers also found that right precuneus volume was associated with feelings on the other scales. Positive emotions and more purpose in life were associated with greater volume, negative feelings with lower volume.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that they have found a positive association between subjective happiness score and volume of the right precuneus in the brain – a brain region also associated with emotional and purpose of life scores.
They suggest that, "the precuneus mediates subjective happiness by integrating the emotional and cognitive components of happiness".
This Japanese study found subjective happiness to be associated with volume of one brain region – the right precuneus. Previous research is said not to have been able to clarify whether brain features are linked to this elusive and highly valued feeling.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers also found that greater subjective happiness was associated with positive emotions and greater feelings of purpose in life, while lower happiness was linked with the opposite.
There is however, little else to be concluded from this research and there are a few important limitations to note.
The sample size, at only 51, was small for this type of study. The participants were also all young Japanese adults. Great care must be taken before extending the observations in this sample to people of other populations, or all people in general. The same findings may not have been observed in another group of people.
The study is cross-sectional, taking one-off psychological questionnaires and one-off brain scans. We do not know whether the psychological assessments reflect lifelong happiness, mood or emotions in these people, or whether these are more transitory states – as they can be for many of us – depending on current life circumstances. We also don't know whether the questionnaires are able to grasp all the nuances of people's feelings.
Being cross-sectional, we also can't conclude on cause and effect. We don't know whether the feelings or emotions of an individual could be predetermined by the precuneus volume they are born with, or whether brain nerve cells in this area could change and adapt during life – influencing volume – depending on our feelings and emotions.
The researchers do discuss two previous studies. One suggests that meditation can increase happiness, while a second suggests that psychological training, such as meditation, could influence the volume of the precuneus. However, they did not study whether this was true themselves – it was just part of their discussion about the potential implications of their research.
Randomised controlled trials or carefully designed observational follow-up studies would be needed to better assess whether mediation or other psychological practices could influence our brain or emotions.
This study alone provides no evidence that mediating will influence our brain structure or volume and make us feel happier.
That said, the concept of "mindfulness" – using a range of techniques, including meditation, to become more aware of the world around you – has become increasingly popular. Supporters of mindfulness claim that it can help combat stress and improve wellbeing.
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
The Independent, 21 November 2015
The Daily Telegraph, 20 November 2015
Mail Online, 21 November 2015
Links to the science
Scientific Reports. Published online November 20 2015
Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. June 2014