The Neuroscience of Optimism
An MRI study reveals our optimistic brains.
Posted August 23, 2012
If you're within the 32 percent of Americans that made a resolution for 2012, are you still going strong? Nearly nine months in, you've been faced with the temptation, the test of willpower, and likely some teasing from loved ones. And you've only got a few months left to call your resolution a success? Easy as pie ...
Experimentally (and in real life), our species has consistently demonstrated unbridled optimism in the face of adversity. We've failed for the past 20 years' worth of New Years resolutions—but no, 2012 will definitely be the year we lose weight. Plus, we're all going to quit the jobs we despise and find a better-paying, less stressful, more rewarding job. AND win the lottery (brilliant—we'll never have to go back to work in the first place!). A study by Tali Sharot and colleagues from New York University explored exactly why we can retain this buoyancy, thanks to insights in brain imaging.
In the study, 18 participants were asked to recall past events as well as imagine future ones based upon on-screen cues (such as winning an award). They were then asked to describe their thoughts—how strong, emotional, and positive each thought was, and whether or not it was experienced first-hand. A standard questionnaire also evaluated how optimistic they are.
The results clearly demonstrated a rosier bias. The participants rated upcoming events more positively than even happy past events—things they had actually experienced. Interestingly, participants viewed future events from a first-hand perspective if they were positive, but an outsider's perspective if negative.
While these participants daydreamed, the researchers also conducted fMRI scans of their brains. As thoughts of happy future events flooded their minds, two structures were identified to be more strongly activated compared to negative images: the rostral anterior cingulated cortex (RACC) and the right amygdala. Additionally, the more strongly the RACC was activated, the higher the participants' score on the optimism questionnaire.
Is optimism beneficial, or merely naïvety? The authors reason that the RACC may function to help us imagine future events by assessing our emotions from similar past events. (Who hasn't envisaged their first day of school or a new job repeatedly based on their past experiences?)
But, even more importantly, the RACC may work hand-in-hand with our emotional center, the amygdala, to actually downplay negative emotional responses. This, in turn, may be adaptive; a "glass half-full" optimism may not only make us happier, but also give us a drive to achieve high-stakes goals. Though there are inherent risks in overoptimism, simply accepting negative predictions will impair our lives.
So keep up with that healthy dose of optimism, if anything, as you prepare to take on the last few months of 2012 equipped with your resolutions. When your nucleus accumbens tells you how delicious that slice of cheesecake will be, remember how hard your RACC worked this summer to ensure that you were beach-body ready.
Actually, just eat the cheesecake. Cheesecake is delicious.
Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, & Phelps EA (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature, 450 (7166), 102-5 PMID: 17960136