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The Neuroscience of a Life Well-lived: New St Cross Ethics Seminar

Professor Morten Kringelbach (Aarhus and Oxford) recently gave a fascinating New St Cross Ethics Seminar on ‘The Neuroscience of a Life Well-Lived’ (YouTube; mp3).

Morten began with a very cute slide of two babies enjoying being with one another and with others, to bring out the importance of sociality in our understanding of pleasure and the pleasurable. He went on to describe his early work on emotion, suggesting that we might see emotion as a molecule, which always contains two atoms: pleasure and pain. This is a felt emotion at a time, but one can also see emotion diachronically, developing into moods, and indeed colouring the whole of a life, and determining its level of overall flourishing.

Morten next explained the history behind current neural imaging, and how his own expertise in computer science enabled him to understand the predictive role of emotion in the brain – how pleasure cycles enable survival, and how grasping this aspect of pleasure can help explain ‘anhedonia’ and related psychiatric disorders. And this Morten has largely done through a focus on the orbitofrontal cortex.

Morten then drew an analogy between the ‘orchestration’ of different activities in the brain – motivation, attention, pleasure, and so on – and musical orchestration. If we return to the babies, within milliseconds we recognize them, take pleasure in their pleasure, and are motivated to care for them (if we can). In fact, he has found evidence that parenting, over time, changes the brain, including in particular the hedonic system. We can even to an extent tell whether someone is or is not flourishing by looking at the activity of their brain using a scanner, and then, through learning what is going on in a ‘healthy’ brain, we can think about interventions that may help those who are not flourishing, through, for example, deep brain stimulation, psychedelics, meditation, or music.

The lecture ended with Morten’s emphasizing the highly inter-disciplinary nature of work on flourishing, and how that work will be carried forward at the new Centre for Eudaimonia and Flourishing he has founded in Oxford. We look forward to further collaboration with Morten and the Centre over the coming years!


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