The Happy Brain with Dean Burnett – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This is the last of my posts from Edinburgh Science Festival’s Delegate Programme; The Happy Brain with Dr Dean Burnett. I also went to see Robin Ince’s I’m a Joke and So Are You, but I genuinely have no idea how to articulate what I heard during that show – I know that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t find it particularly science-heavy.

Front cover of 'The Happy Brain' book by Dean BurnettAnyway, today I’m talking about ‘The Happy Brain’ – a show based on Dean’s latest book, that aims to explain the science of where happiness comes from, and why. I bought the book a few weeks ago because originally I intended to read it before seeing the show, then I gave it a bit more thought and figured that probably wasn’t the best idea. I’d read the first 50 pages or so, so I knew Dean’s tone, the type of thing that the show would include, but I’m glad that I didn’t race through to the end as I would have spoiled the show for myself.

Going by the show, I think that the first chapter of the book will be the most jam-packed with neuroscience. I’m glad that’s the case, because honestly I found it a bit heavy going for a popular science book. I found it really interesting, but the first chapter was just so long that I found myself avoiding going back to the book to continue reading. Seeing Dean talk about the book has made me much more excited to get back to it, and I think that’s largely due to his delivery.

On his website he’s described as a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’ – nothing wrong with that, but I get nervous when a scientist is described as an ‘occasional comedian’. That’s no reflection on the scientists that I know; there are tonnes of very funny people around me, but I’m fairly certain none of them would use the label ‘comedian’ for fear of setting themselves up for failure.
As soon as the show started, my nerves settled. This was not going to be an awkward attempt at stand-up comedy under the guise of science, because Dean is actually funny. Like, really funny. He started off by telling us he needed to be taught how to speak as an adult (he had elocution lessons in his mid-thirties in an attempt to improve his delivery), clearly I can’t speak to what he sounded like before, but his current mellow Welsh accent served his jokes very well and I found myself happily chuckling throughout the entire show. Dean was significantly funnier than a lot of the professional comedians I’ve seen do stand-up, and the exploration of happiness through the lens of neuroscience was a bonus.

He starts off by going through a few genuine newspaper headlines related to happiness. These are all genuine headlines taken from the Daily Mail – I’ve linked them below if you’re curious to find out more.

I love it when science communicators do this. Dean questioned them, poked fun at them, and gently demonstrated the art of critical thinking whilst making the audience laugh. His points were daft enough to make us laugh repeatedly, but he was asking scientifically valid questions. In the research world we often refer to the ‘PICO‘ method for generating good questions – Population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome. What Dean was doing was going through each of those headlines and finding where one or more of those components was missing, and drawing attention to it; precisely what scientists are often trying to encourage the public to do. He did it with humour, and it worked brilliantly.

There are two main things that I like about the way that Dean communicates neuroscience, one that I picked up from the first chapter of the book, and another from the show.
From the book: Dean is incredibly open about the limitations of science. A substantial part of the first chapter talks about Dean’s plans for researching the topic of happiness through use of a functional MRI scanner that he hopes he can get some time on through a colleague he knows. When Dean reveals his plan, this colleagues laughs at him, explaining that just because a bit of the brain lights up when something happens does not make it the ‘X’ part of the brain. During the Q&A Dean was questioned on this, and he explained it (predictably) brilliantly – “if you put someone in an fMRI scanner and wiggle a carrot at them, the bit of the brain that lights up to show activity cannot then be referred to as the ‘carrot centre’.
From the show: Dean makes it very clear that being happy all the time is not something that we should expect or strive towards. As someone that’s spoken openly about living with depression, I really value this approach. As soon as we’re seen without a smile it feels like we’re bombarded with supposedly inspirational quotes on social media, told that it ‘could be worse’, and to ‘appreciate what we have’ – but being happy isn’t something that is sustainable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So, what makes a happy brain? Honestly, I still don’t know.
As with all learning processes, I came away understanding the science of happiness better than I had previously, but what that has ultimately done is given me an additional list of questions that are as yet unanswered. What I learned from this show is that happiness is much more complex than I thought; there are countless different versions of happiness, each of those is likely caused by something different, and every person is different. For me, I’m pretty happy right now writing this blog post whilst sat on my sofa in Aberdeen after a busy few days in Edinburgh. I’m currently the chilled, fulfilled kind of happy that means I’m content with what I’ve achieved over the past few days, and just the right level of tired – I’m looking forward to climbing into bed, but not over-tired and grouchy.

For more information about what Dean does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link).

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