Melissa E. Malka, BSc – Brain Blogger Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Sat, 30 Dec 2017 16:30:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Happiness is Contagious, If Not For a Fleeting Moment Thu, 25 Dec 2008 18:16:09 +0000 According to a twenty-year longitudinal study of over 4000 individuals, happiness is indeed contagious. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, professor at Harvard University, compared the spread of happiness to a “ripple effect” that could affect others up to three degrees of separation away; a friend of a friend of a friend, so to speak.

The study did not actually determine the mechanisms of how happiness could be spread, but there were several hypotheses presented from happy people sharing their good fortune to simply exhibiting genuinely contagious emotions. Friends, spouses, live-in partners, roommates, siblings, and neighbors; all of these people would have an effect on their social circles’ happiness.

There is one exception in the study — coworkers and colleagues. No significant effects were seen within those groups, which is interesting considering that some of us would interact with our co-workers upwards of 40 hours a week.

Prior to this study, researchers had determined that a person’s mood could immediately affect the mood of others, particularly by mimicking body language and facial expressions. A person could “catch” a mood in as little time as a few seconds, to as long as mimicking a roommate’s behaviors over several weeks.

Christakis’s study showed the significant role of social networks in happiness, referring to happiness as a “collective network phenomenon”, but one that decays over time and geographic distance. Within this network, Christakis found a relationship between an individual’s centrality and their level of happiness. Those who were on the periphery of their social network were more likely to be unhappy than those in the core.

With the World Health Organization (WHO) stressing happiness as an essential component of health, perhaps we should pay more attention to those we surround ourselves with in the hopes of catching more “good moods” than bad ones. Because, although there are several factors that aid in determining our happiness, people in our social network play a big role.


J. H Fowler, N. A Christakis (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study BMJ, 337 (dec04 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a2338

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A Special Thanks – Remembering a Man Who Remembered No One Sun, 07 Dec 2008 15:31:55 +0000 In a way it is ironic, how many researchers, psychology students, and cognitive neuroscientists worldwide will remember Mr. Henry G. Molaison and he did not remember a single person he met after his brain surgery, circa 1953.

Henry G. Molaison, formerly known to all as simply HM was one of the most widely studied patients in the field of cognitive neuropsychology for over fifty years. His participation in several studies provided significant contributions to the understanding of brain function and memory. HM passed away on December 3, 2008 in Hartford, Connecticut.

Molaison suffered from seizures for many years, the cause attributed to a bicycle accident he had at the age of nine. In 1953, at sixteen years of age, Molaison underwent what would have been cutting-edge surgery at the time, at the hands of Dr. William Scoville. Scoville localized HM’s epilepsy to both medial temporal lobes. During surgery, he removed parts of the affected lobes and the majority of HM’s hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, and amygdala. Post-surgery, HM’s seizures were cured but he suffered from anterograde amnesia, an inability to form new knowledge and memories. However, his working and procedural memory remained intact, as did many of his long-term memories from before the surgery.

As an undergraduate student in an abnormal psychology course, our class had studied HM and his contributions to the field (as well as the fascinating case of Phineas Gage). I’d never given it much thought then, but to think of it, Molaison was studied for over fifty years! He may not have had the opportunity to live a normal life but he did selflessly partake in experiments for the rest of his life. Maybe it wasn’t selfless if he couldn’t remember what he was doing there but I can imagine the exchange between him and his caretakers:

HM, you’re here as a study patient. You can’t form new memories…

Did he have to consent to participation every day?

Thank you HM. Your participation in various studies single-handedly revolutionized our knowledge of human memory.

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How Much Social Capital Do You Have? Sat, 29 Nov 2008 15:42:12 +0000 If you were starting a business, you’d hope to acquire as much capital as you could: property, relevant tools, employees, and so on. As individuals, we strive to improve our human capital, or our economic value. We earn college degrees, take continuing education courses, attempt to expand our knowledge and master our respective fields. The more we know, the more we’re worth and it makes perfect sense (and boosts our pay!).

Yet, perhaps more attention should be paid to the value of social capital. A concept with several definitions and applications in practically every field, social capital for our purposes can be defined as

the quantity and quality of social relationships such as formal and informal social connections as well as norms of reciprocity and trust that exist in a place of community.

Social capital extends to more than just the number of friendships or professional relationships a person can maintain, it’s more to do with how well you can access or employ those connections to benefit yourself (and others).

PencilsDr. Ching-Hsing of Chang Gung Institute of Technology, Taiwan, compiled data from several published articles discussing the concept of social capital and its implication in both individual and community health. As an individual, there is a positive relationship between our social capital and our physical and emotional health, and the inverse also applies. But, social capital doesn’t just refer to individuals, it can apply to communities, towns, and cities. The concept itself is difficult to quantitatively measure. Calculating the number of members involved in voluntary work within a society is one aspect that can be measured but it’s not a tell-all.

The key to social capital is reciprocity, and how much mutual assistance can be expected. In interpersonal relationships between friends, colleagues, and groups in a community, the better the social capital, the better the health of the environment, the community, and the people who reside in it.

Good social capital isn’t all good; I’m sure that several widely supported social movements that didn’t necessarily contribute anything good to society can come to mind. Gangs, organized crime, Hitler: great social support, not-so-great intentions.

In terms of an individual, it’s hard to calculate our own social capital and find ways to improve it. Some of us may have been born into a better situation or earned our social capital through high-ranking positions at prestigious organizations. Others may have had to give a lot before they could start reaping the benefits of reciprocity.

Social capital can be a powerful asset though, for individuals, businesses, and communities alike. It’s networking to the next level and the ability not to be heard, but to be valued. And, its yet another component that affects our health. In my opinion, I’d say emotional more so than physical, but I’m not certain I have enough social capital on this blog yet.


Anne W Taylor, Carmel Williams, Eleonora Dal Grande, Michelle Herriot (2006). Measuring social capital in a known disadvantaged urban community – health policy implications Australia and New Zealand Health Policy, 3 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1743-8462-3-2

S Subramanian (2003). Neighborhood differences in social capital: a compositional artifact or a contextual construct? Health & Place, 9 (1), 33-44 DOI: 10.1016/S1353-8292(02)00028-X

Ching-Hsing Hsieh (2008). A Concept Analysis of Social Capital Within a Health Context Nursing Forum, 43 (3), 151-159 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-6198.2008.00107.x

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School Bullies – Is the Amygdala to Blame? Mon, 17 Nov 2008 15:21:28 +0000 Countless studies have focused on the subject of bullying, and the latest even suggest an interesting paradox: is bullying caused by a lack of empathy for others or, surprisingly, by too much empathy? Because, although all of us react in some way to seeing others in pain, we don’t all react in the same way. Scientists are asking, could an empathic response to others in pain cause enough emotional distress in some adolescents to actually cause them to respond aggressively? Here lie the two big hypotheses and they’re rather contradictory.

A recently published University of Chicago study tested the response from two different groups of adolescents to viewing others in pain. One group had been previously diagnosed with CD, a mental disorder associated with increased risk of incarceration, injury, depression, homicide, and an overall disregard for rules and laws; the other group was an asymptomatic control group. The teens were exposed to various stimuli, which showed individuals in accidental pain and individuals in pain that was intentionally caused by another, in a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner.

MRIThe results of the fMRI testing showed that in both groups, the “pain matrix” was selectively activated during the accidental sequences. But, the patterns of activation during the pain-caused-by-other sequences varied significantly between the two groups. Three specific regions, the amygdala, striatum, and temporal poles were activated in the aggressive group, but not the control. Contrary to previous studies, bullies may actually exhibit a greater than average neural response to those in pain.

As for the amygdala, a crucial player in the formation of emotional reactions, its degree of activation was positively correlated to the number of aggressive acts of the participants in the study leading scientists think to that the activity in the amygdala, coupled with the striatum, creates a positive response for those aggressive youth: pleasure.

The researchers called this finding “intriguing” but we’re still far from understanding the complex nature of aggressive responses and why bullies bully. At least we know violent TV isn’t all to blame.


J DECETY, K MICHALSKA, Y AKITSUKI, B LAHEY (2008). Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: A functional MRI investigation Biological Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2008.09.004

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