What Do We Know About the Neurology of Human Flourishing?

“Human flourishing is fundamentally a self-directed activity. … Flourishing does not consist in the mere possession and use of goods that might be necessary for a flourishing life. Rather, human flourishing consists in a person developing the skills, habits, judgements and virtues that will, in most cases, achieve the needed goods. The goods must, in a central way, be made one’s own”: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, “Norms of Liberty”, 2005: 86.

Is there a readable book about the neurology of human flourishing? The only book that I am aware of that comes close is “Iconoclast”, by Gregory Berns. This book discusses things that have probably happened at a neurological level when famous people have achieved extraordinary things. The brain functions and processes that Berns writes about, however, seem to me to be relevant to the character development and flourishing of all humans.

What are the factors most likely to prevent individuals from achieving according to their potential? Anyone writing a list from the top of their head would be likely to include such things as: getting one’s thinking stuck in a rut; being constrained by fear of the unknown or fear of ridicule; social environments that reward conformity rather than individuality; and lack of skills in social networking. Gregory Berns discusses these factors.

Points made by Berns include the following:

  • In order to think creatively and imagine new possibilities it is necessary to break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. We need novel experiences in order to see things differently.
  • Constraints associated with conditioned fear responses can be inhibited through cognitive reappraisal (re-interpretation of information). For example, fear of uncertainty or ambiguity can be inhibited if the situation is viewed as an opportunity to gain additional knowledge by experimenting.
  • People have a strong tendency to follow the herd in order to avoid activating their fear systems. But one dissenter is typically enough to break the herd effect.
  • Important social networking skills include promoting familiarity with the goods you are selling (because familiarity defines what people like) and establishing a reputation for being trustworthy.

Do we need a neurologist to tell us such things? Probably not, but it is good to know that there is neurological evidence supporting at least some of the claims made by personal development practitioners.

There is a fair amount of discussion in the book relating to wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity and justice, but I don’t think there is much discussion of temperance or transcendence. One could hardly have expected all the human virtues to be discussed in the book, however, because Greg Burns did not actually set out to write a book about the neurology of human flourishing.

Pain and Depression Sufferers Benefit from Breakthroughs in Neurostimulation

When Adam Hammond went skydiving in 2006, he thought it was something that was going to end the same way as the 1,000 jumps before. However, when this U.S. Army “Golden Knight” pulled his parachute, nothing happened. Hammond hit the ground at over 45 miles an hour and broke his leg, pelvis and spine. Hammond woke six weeks later in the hospital with his father by his side. He considers himself “very lucky to be alive, [for] no one expected [him] to live1.”

After two years of therapy and surgeries, the pain was still so intense it was hindering his recovery. To combat this, Hammond was recommended a spinal cord neurostimulator. This device is only the size of a U.S. silver dollar and emits an electrical pulse to the spinal cord, disrupting the pain signal and replacing it with a pleasant one. After using this for one week under trial conditions, Hammond said, “The week trial was amazing. I didn’t expect those results at all. The day I got back…I was walking twice as far…without any pain at all1.”

According to Dr. Tim Deer, the president and CEO of the Center for Pain Relief, this device could be described as “pacing the nerves of the spine like you would for a regular heart beat, [except] we are going to pace the nerves that control pain1.” With this stimulator now permanently in place under Hammond’s skin, Deer hopes to increase his activity and decrease his dependence on medication. “That’s our main goal, to get him to be vital in his own life and his family’s life,” Deer commented1.

A New Industry

More than 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain like Hammond3, and almost 300 million suffer worldwide4. Yet, only 100,000 patients are using this type of spinal cord stimulation technology. Part of this is due to the fact that the medical device industry is only just coming online. Even though it is growing at 20% or more each year5, the industry is far from saturated and is expected to have room for growth of 90%6. By the end of 2008, 44,600 spinal cord stimulation devices are expected to be sold7, but that barely begins to help the millions of people that could benefit from it. Luckily, the medical device industry is predicted to grow from $1.7 billion in 2008 to $4.3 billion in 20128. Growth of this nature will ensure more chronic pain sufferers have access to this type of management system, especially since most health plans reimburse patients for this type of therapy5.

The widespread acceptance and use of this technology is even more desirable when one considers chronic pain costs the U.S. $100 billion annually from lost time at work, healthcare costs and lost productivity9. Of this, $2.6 billion was spent on over-the-counter pain medication and $14 billion in prescription medications in 20044.

Chronic pain due to spinal injuries is not the only problem that can be ameliorated with electrical pulses. Other problems such as severe depression, tremors, Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, pelvic pain, angina, vascular disease, occipital headache, obsessive-compulsive disorder, motor dysfunction, brain injury and cortical stimulation are all being studied as potential benefactors of electrical pulse therapy5. One human trial is already underway to see if deep brain stimulation can resolve severe and lasting depression in patients unable to find relief through other methods.

Hope for Depression Sufferers

On June 26, St. Jude Medical issued a press release stating that two patients with severe depression were to undergo surgery to implant a small device near their collarbones. This device will release electrical pulses near the collarbone and travel up wires that are connected to an area of the brain thought to control depression10. According to the National Institutes of Health, 21 million people in the U.S. are depressed in some way. Although mainstream treatments are effective for 80% of these, they fail for the other 4 million in our population. “This…is an important step in…a neuromodulation therapy that…will treat this debilitating form of depression,” stated Chris Chavez, president of the St. Jude Medical ANS (Advanced Neuromodulation Systems) Division.

If the study goes as hoped, it may mirror results found in a Canadian study of 20 patients. This found that, after six months, over half of the patients felt a 40% or greater decrease in their depression. Currently, almost 80% of the patients feel relief, and 40% have began participating in social activities such as employment, dating, education and travel10. Furthermore, 15% were medically deemed to be completely free from their depression.

The improvements made to this type of therapy along with its increased use has the possibility of helping billions of people whether they suffer from depression, pain or disease. In the future, the boom in this industry could lead to a boom in the economy, allowing those held back from work and productivity the ability to regain their life, employment and security.


1 – Video with Adam Hammond and Tim Deer, M.D.

2 – Press Release: Former U.S. Army Parachutist Becomes First Person Implanted with the World’s Smallest Neurostimulator to Treat Chronic Pain. Sept. 17, 2008.

3 – National Institutes of Health; National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Notes, Vol 23, No. 3.

4 – National Institutes of Health Office of Technology Transfer (NIH-OTT)

5 – ANS Medical Implantable Therapies

6 – The Goldman Sachs Group. Americas: Healthcare, Medical Devices. New York, NY: February 2007.

7 – Millenium Research Group. U.S. Markets for Neuromodulation Devices. Toronto, Ontario: 2006.

8 –Neurotech Reports. The Market for Neurotechnology, 2008 – 2012, San Francisco, CA: 2007.

9 – NIH Guide: New Direction in Pain Research I. Sept 4, 1998

10 – Press Release: St. Jude Medical Announces First Patient Implants in Clinical Study Evaluating Deep Brain Stimulation for Depression. June 26, 2008.