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Daniel Kahneman: Why Moving to California Won’t Make You Happy

In some crucial areas of human cognition, we don’t know and we can’t fully trust ourselves. On the bright side, Daniel Kahneman’s work shows that the kinds of errors we tend to make are extremely predictable. 

 

What’s the Big Idea? 


According to Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we humans are very poor decision makers when it comes to our own happiness. The problem begins with language. We use the word happiness, Kahneman says, to refer to two very different and often mutually contradictory phenomena: the mood of the moment and our overall life-satisfaction. The former is an evanescent and notoriously unreliable gauge of the latter. Example: the joy of buying a new car vs. the subsequent, ongoing annoyance of paying the monthly bills. 

Kahneman’s decades of cognitive research, much of it done in collaboration with longtime colleague Amos Tversky, has shown that humans are subject to what he calls a “focusing illusion.” We focus on the moment, overestimating the importance of certain factors in determining our future happiness and ignoring the factors that really matter. 

For this reason, people commonly assume that moving to a warmer climate will make them significantly happier. This is not the case at all, as a 1998 large-sample study of Kahneman’s showed; overall life satisfaction in the Midwest and California, the regions sampled, was nearly identical. 

[VIDEO] Psychologist Daniel Kahneman on the "focusing illusion" 

Yet human cognitive illusions are so deep-rooted that reading this article and Kahneman’s study isn’t likely to have much effect on whether or not you move to California in search of happiness. This is Kahneman’s unique contribution to psychology – the complex detective work involved in unearthing counterproductive habits of mind so deeply ingrained that they’re nearly impossible to notice.  

As if blindness to our own tendencies to err weren’t bad enough, we’re emotionally committed to our bad decisions because of another bad habit Kahneman has identified – the tendency to trust our snap, intuitive judgments over better, more deliberative decision-making processes. Like all cognitive illusions, this one has a vestigial, evolutionary component: quick thinking keeps you safe from predators. 

What’s the Significance? 

Closer to what we really mean by “happiness” is the long-term, overall sense of well-being Kahneman calls “life satisfaction.” This is the pervading sense that things are right with your world – a basic sense of security in yourself, your world, and the decisions you’ve made. 

Much more important to life satisfaction than what car you drive or what state you live in are your life goals and how close you are to achieving them. Let me back up a bit. If your life goal at age 20 is to own a really great car, and by age 40 you’ve achieved this, your overall level of self-reported life satisfaction will likely be high. Likewise with moving to California. But as Kahneman has consistently shown, if your goal at age 20 is to become a great artist, and at age 40 you are living in California, driving a great car, and practicing law, chances are that you just can’t get no . . . satisfaction. 

The sobering take home lesson here is that in some crucial areas, we don’t know and we can’t fully trust ourselves. On the bright side, Kahneman’s work shows that the kinds of errors we tend to make are extremely predictable. While studying our own cognition may never completely free us from its traps, it should at least give us pause to reflect and distance enough to make a few better decisions.

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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