“The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness. What it shows could fuel a revolution in psychology, as the field comes to grips with accumulating evidence that our brains aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.” ~ Tali Sharot
Dr. Tali Sharot, research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, just released her book, The Optimism Bias; A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. The optimism bias is the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events. The book is a neuroscientist’s exploration of this bias in our brains, an exploration that contributes to an increased understanding of the biological basis of optimism.
Our Memories Are Not Like Video-tapes
In some of her early studies, Sharot asked participants to recall past memories. She was surprised by the inaccuracy of their recollections. Using brain imaging technology, she found that the same brain structures that are engaged when we recollect the past are called upon when we think of the future. Recollection, therefore, is a reconstructive process, not a video-like rerun of past events. It is thus susceptible to inaccuracy.
Sharot recorded people’s brain activity when they imagined mundane future events like going to the hairdresser or getting an ID card. What she unexpectedly discovered was that most people fashioned wonderful scenarios around these seemingly routine future events. In further studies, she found that people expected more positive than negative or neutral events to take place in the future. Plus they expected the positive events to take place sooner. This made Sharot wonder whether the human tendency for optimism is a consequence of the architecture of our brains.
We are Hard-Wired for Optimism
While many are convinced that optimism was invented by Americans, she was determined to conduct her studies in the UK and Israel as well as the USA, all with similar results. According to Sharot’s research in optimism and memory, we are hard-wired for optimism. She speculates that optimism served an evolutionary purpose because positive expectations of the future enhanced the probability of survival. She claims that optimism can be destructive if we cannot realistically predict what will happen in the future. For example, law students who were well briefed on the statistics that 50% of all marriages end in divorce were still quite convinced their upcoming marriages would last “until death do us part.”
But she also claims that optimism is functional in the sense that it defends us from feeling hopeless about the future, thus reducing stress and anxiety and enhancing motivation to act and be productive. There are parts of our brain that evolved to give us the capacity to envision ourselves in the future. They enable us to plan ahead, saving food and money, which can ensure our future security. Both prospective thinking and optimism work hand in hand to propel people forward.
How do expectations change reality?
Sharot asserts that health and progress are more likely when our brains over-predict future happiness and success. “The tendency for positive predictions to create positive outcomes (whether subjective or objective) is rooted in fundamental rules governing the way the mind perceives, interprets and alters the work it encounters.” The mind has a tendency to try to transform predictions into reality because people’s behavior is influenced by their own subjective perceptions of reality. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a cause of the event rather than just a forecast of the future.
Depression is also a Cognitive Bias
People with a higher likelihood for depression tend to be negatively biased, interpreting everyday events as more negative more often. According to Sharot, antidepressants do not directly enhance people’s moods. They actually change the cognitive bias. This is why it takes time for antidepressants to change perceptions, attention, and memory and thereby alter someone’s emotional state.
Dr. Sharot cites research that suggests that a gene coding for serotonin function affects a person’s likelihood of suffering depression – but only after experiencing a very stressful life event like death of a loved one, unemployment, or divorce. Perhaps this genetic predisposition makes a person less resistant to stressors, similar to a weakened immune system. Perhaps it also heightens physiological response to stressful situations. If so, it may well be that resilience training and practices that redirect cognitive bias toward the positive, can, in fact, protect against depression.
The Optimism Bias is full of fascinating discussions of studies in neuroscience. It outlines the neuroscience behind how the brain generates hope and what happens when it fails; how the brains of optimists and pessimists differ; why we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy; how emotions strengthen our ability to recollect; how anticipation and dread affect us; and how our optimistic illusions influence our decisions.
Once I started reading The Optimism Bias, I could not put it down. Sharot describes her research through captivating stories while making the complex neuroscience easy to understand. For those of you interested in understanding the biological processes that affect our outlooks on the world, this is the book for you.
Sharot, Tali (2011). The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Pantheon Books Inc./Random House.
Brain By dierk schaefer
Gérôme, Pygmalion et Galatée, 1890 By leo.jeje