Hacking Happiness #215 (P)
Dr Fredric Schiffer’s happy glasses
Dear supporters of Daily Philosophy,
In the past week, we had an article by Catherine Greene in this newsletter: Am I Irrational? And how would I know? If you missed it, you can read it right here:
Two days ago was also a double birthday in the philosophical calendar:
July 15, 1892 was the birthday of philosopher Walter Benjamin, who was an essayist and philosopher of culture, history and art, best known for his work on the theory of mechanically reproducible artworks.
July 15, 1930 also marks the birthday of philosopher Jacques Derrida, who was a controversial post-structuralist and postmodern philosopher, famous for his method of deconstruction.
I must say that I personally never understood what Derrida is saying, so if any of the reading philosophers would like to take pity on us and write an article explaining in an understandable way Derrida’s main theses, then I would be very happy to put it up on Daily Philosophy!
Out of curiosity, who feels that they have understood Derrida?
For our European readers, now that the Euro is worth as little as the US dollar, this is the best time to get a cheap subscription to your favourite newsletter! For 7 USD you can be part of the family, and if you pay now for a year, you can even make a profit when the Euro recovers:
And now, let’s go back to today’s topic: Hacking happiness with a pair of broken sunglasses.
Happiness and the brain
The Stoics were, over two thousand years ago, already pretty clear about the fact that whatever happiness we may feel comes ultimately from our brains.
Yes, there are external inputs that trigger our inner mental states, but in the end, all our anxiety, fear, loneliness, all stress and despair, but also all joy and satisfaction with life do not come to us from outside: they are the product of our own thoughts, our own internal processing in the brain.
In its most extreme form we find this thesis in the thought experiment of the “brain-in-the-vat”: Imagine you have your brain taken out and put into a special container where it will be kept perfectly alive and healthy in a nutrient solution. Scientists will connect the nerve endings that come out of your brain to various computer interfaces that will simulate the inputs that you normally receive from your sensory organs: so your brain will be able to see, smell, taste and hear, it will be able to touch stuff — all simulated inside a very detailed and realistic computer game. They will also connect your spine’s motor neurons to the computer’s input controllers, so that you will be able to walk, jump, swim and hug people inside the simulated world. In short: you will live a full human life without ever feeling that you are inside a fake world. Everything will feel just right, just as real as it ever did when your body was made of meat. (A similar setup is also known as Nozick’s Experience Machine, and is a staple of sci-fi stories and movies).
The question is: What will this do to your happiness? Will your brain be able to be happy in its little box? The scientists, we assume, will feed it only pleasurable and satisfying sensations, so your life will feel quite perfect in there, much better surely than it does now, in a world that includes wars, global warming, family tragedies and a lifelong, soul-crushing 9-to-5 job (and the latter only if you belong to the lucky ones who have a reliable job).
Drugs and direct brain manipulation
It is very tempting to think about happiness as the result of the activity of the brain. If we could get genuine happiness from our brains alone, then we would not need to change society (as the Frankfurt School thought), to exercise our virtues (as Aristotle did), or to believe in God (as many religions will tell us). We already own those 3 pounds of goo, they’re always in reach, and we can do with them what we like.
One way, advocated by many in the tradition of 60s counter-culture, would be to try and change our brain’s processing by using drugs. From Alexander Shulgin to Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, many (more or less serious) thinkers have advocated manipulating the brain’s chemistry in order to increase one’s life satisfaction, or even to enable one to have entirely new experiences of meaning and transcendence, to open up one’s mind to mental states of bliss one had never known before.
But of course, this does not always end well. Many psychedelic drugs are difficult to obtain, illegal, and potentially very dangerous to one’s mental or physical health. Using them in a controlled way, while avoiding addiction and negative effects seems to be difficult, and for every Aldous Huxley who has a drug-induced epiphany there are hundreds or thousands of addicts suffering and dying on the streets.
Another very interesting thing happened to Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who one morning discovered that she herself was having a stroke. In her book “My Stroke of Insight” and the associated TED talk, linked below, she recounts how the left hemisphere of her brain suddenly stopped working: the language centres of her brain stopped creating internal chatter, her feeling of time, of a past and a future went away, and she even lost a sense of the boundaries of her body, feeling that she merged with the wall she was leaning against:
As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace. In this void of higher cognition and details pertaining to my normal life, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a “being at one” with the universe ... My body was propped up against the shower wall and I ... could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of by being as that of a fluid rather than of a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything ... As the blood poured in over my brain, my consciousness slowed to a soothing and satisfying awareness that embraced the vast and wondrous world within ... In that moment I knew. Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!
And she was happy as long as the experience lasted. A full, total, uninterrupted state of bliss. But, of course, such an injury is a one-time event, something that cannot be repeated at will, and we wouldn’t want to irreversibly destroy our brains in order to achieve happiness.
So is there another way? If we believe Dr Fredric Schiffer, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, there is.
Our dual mind
The principle behind Dr Schiffer’s glasses is rooted in the idea that the two hemispheres of the human brain represent two very different ways of perceiving the world. While the left hemisphere is logical, perceiving and working in linear time, language-based and critical, the right hemisphere is the exact opposite: intuitive, artsy, rooted in the moment, perceiving without judging, and without a sense of self. In short, the right hemisphere seems to be just what how would expect an expert Buddhist meditator to perceive the world: free of judgement, with a keen sense of the unity of all things, living perfectly content in the moment, without being distracted by regrets of the past or hopes of the future .
The two hemispheres also evaluate their perceptions differently:
Werner Wittling and his associates reported that by tracking eye movements and masking a computer screen, they were able to show an upsetting movie to one hemisphere or the other in intact people ... The participants’ responses were different depending on which side the movie was shown ... I realized that I might be able to accomplish the same effect by simply blocking a person’s vision so that he could see out only one of the lateral visual fields. 
How does this work? It so happens that each eye’s retina (the layer on the back of the eye that receives the light and converts it into electrical signals that go to the brain) is split vertically in half. The right side of each retina is connected to the left side of the brain, while the left side of each retina is connected to the brain’s right hemisphere. (Excuse any inaccuracies here — I’m not a neurobiologist. It’s only the basic principle that we are concerned with as philosophers, not the anatomical detail.)
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