World of Joy in the Brain

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos

"Joy to the World," one of the season's best-known Christmas carols, is a tonic as well as a song. The optimism and sense of well-being expressed in the words can act positively on one's physical well-being, according to a number of leading psychiatrists and neurologists. "People who are full of hope and joy do better physically," states Dr. James Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine at 5225 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Objective studies show that people who think they are doing better in an illness actually often improve their well-being, he says, adding: "In Chinese medicine, the heart is connected to joy, which means - without any real scientific proof - that the heart functions better if you are joyful."

Studies of the immune system have shown that volunteers were far less likely to develop infections if they were optimistic by nature, Dr. Gordon notes. "You are likely to do better under a variety of different conditions, whether you have cancer or a headache. People who are joyful have a feeling of more energy. The neurotransmitters are going to be different."

He offers a cautionary note about the limits of overdoing such emphasis, however, especially during the holiday season. "People think they have to be happy all the time. It's great to feel joy, but one of the things I saw when treating children traumatized by war in Kosovo is people who lost so much began to realize the possibility of joy because they had felt the depths of despair. If you cut yourself off from one emotion, you cut yourself off from all."

A person must allow himself to feel sad, Dr. Gordon advises on this point.

"Don't deny it. If you shut [sadness] down, it will be harder to feel [happiness]," he says. Still, he admits it is hard to say whether that is the cause or the effect of the emotion.

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Such assertions go well beyond the benefit of feel-good attitudes put forward many decades ago in a popular book by Norman Vincent Peale called "The Power of Positive Thinking." Far more than simple nostrums and inspirational tracts, the latest thinking on the subject involves aspects of brain physiology.

Among the latest titles explaining the new research are "Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential," published this year by Harmony Books, and "The Secret Life of the Brain," both by Dr. Richard Restak, a Washington neurologist and neuropsychiatrist who is clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University. The latter book is a companion volume to an upcoming PBS-TV series of the same title.

"We know obviously that certain people have personality traits that are basically positive and that there are things you can do to enhance that," Dr. Restak says. "We become what we think about, and our attitudes about our performance can be very self-determinative. I think people with a positive outlook have a different brain from the outset."

The song "Put on a Happy Face" shows such truths long have been acknowledged in the popular imagination, but funding to study brain mechanisms involved in happiness or joy has been made available only relatively recently because, Dr. Restak says, "no one is being treated for being too joyful."

The tide is turning, he says. By using PET scans and MRI, he notes, research scientists such as Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the brain-imaging laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, are beginning to chart the neurological basis of optimism as opposed to pessimism.

Dr. Davidson's discoveries, Dr. Restak says, include finding increased activity inside the left prefrontal cortex among people who are happy and optimistic.

Scientists also now realize, Dr. Restak says, that "no single area of the brain controls the expression of happiness, smiles and laughter. …