Brain imaging reveals why we remain optimistic in the face of reality
For some people, the glass is always half full. Even when a football fan's team has lost ten matches in a row, he might still be convinced his team can reverse its run of bad luck. So why, in the face of clear evidence to suggest to the contrary, do some people remain so optimistic about the future?
In a study published today in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) show that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world. This is related to 'faulty' function of their frontal lobes.
People's predictions of the future are often unrealistically optimistic. A problem that has puzzled scientists for decades is why human optimism is so pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs.
"Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being," explains Dr Tali Sharot. "But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don't we learn from cautionary information?"
This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
See Laughing in the Face of Reality (The Science of Optimism)In this new study, Dr Sharot and Professor Ray Dolan from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, together with Christoph Korn from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain have shown that our failure to alter optimistic predictions when presented with conflicting information is due to errors in how we process the information in our brains.
Nineteen volunteers were presented with a series of negative life events, such as car theft or Parkinson's disease, whilst lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures activity in the brain. They were asked to estimate the probability that this event would happen to them in the future. After a short pause, the volunteers were told the average probability of this event to occur. In total, the participants saw eighty such events.
After the scanning sessions, the participants were asked once again to estimate the probability of each event occurring to them. They were also asked to fill in a questionnaire measuring their level of optimism.
The researchers found that people did, in fact, update their estimates based on the information given, but only if the information was better than expected. For example if they had predicted that their likelihood of suffering from cancer was 40%, but the average likelihood was 30%, they might adjust their estimate to 32%. If the information was worse than expected for example, if they had estimated 10% then they tended to adjust their estimate much less, as if ignoring the data.
The results of the brain scans suggested why this might be the case. All participants showed increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain when the information given was better than expected, this activity actively processed the information to recalculate an estimate. However, when the information was worse than estimated, the more optimistic a participant was (according to the personality questionnaire), the less efficiently activity in these frontal regions coded for it, suggesting they were disregarding the evidence presented to them.
Dr Sharot adds: "Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to. The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future. This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides. Many experts believe the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary."
'Understanding the brain' is one of the Wellcome Trust's key strategic challenges. At the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, clinicians and scientists study higher cognitive function to understand how thought and perception arise from brain activity, and how such processes break down in neurological and psychiatric disease.
Commenting on the study, Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Being optimistic must clearly have some benefits, but is it always helpful and why do some people have a less rosy outlook on life? Understanding how some people always manage to remain optimistic could provide useful insights into happens when our brains do not function properly."
More information: Tali Sharot, Christoph Korn & Raymond Dolan. How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality. Nature Neuroscience; e-pub 9 October 2011.
Provided by Wellcome Trust
- Dopamine enhances expectation of pleasure in humans Nov 12, 2009 | not rated yet | 0
- 'Mind-reading' experiment highlights how brain records memories Mar 12, 2009 | not rated yet | 0
- Robots provide insight into human perception Aug 18, 2010 | not rated yet | 0
- Scientists can now 'see' how different parts of our brain communicate Sep 21, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- How often will you use that treadmill? Nov 17, 2008 | not rated yet | 0
- Motion perception revisited: High Phi effect challenges established motion perception assumptions Apr 23, 2013 | 3 / 5 (2) | 2
- Anything you can do I can do better: Neuromolecular foundations of the superiority illusion (Update) Apr 02, 2013 | 4.5 / 5 (11) | 5
- The visual system as economist: Neural resource allocation in visual adaptation Mar 30, 2013 | 5 / 5 (2) | 9
- Separate lives: Neuronal and organismal lifespans decoupled Mar 27, 2013 | 4.9 / 5 (8) | 0
- Sizing things up: The evolutionary neurobiology of scale invariance Feb 28, 2013 | 4.8 / 5 (10) | 14
Why is zone 1 in liver more prone to ischemic injury?
12 hours ago Hi, Is it because around central vein, there is only deoxygenated blood from the vein where as in the periphery there is hepatic artery. Also why...
How can there be villous adenoma in colon, if there are no villi there
May 22, 2013 As title suggest. Thanks :smile:
How can there be a term called "intestinal metaplasia" of stomach
May 21, 2013 Hello everyone, Ok Stomach's normal epithelium is simple columnar, now in intestinal type of adenocarcinoma of stomach it undergoes "intestinal...
Pressure-volume curve: Elastic Recoil Pressure don't make sense
May 18, 2013 From pressure-volume curve of the lung and chest wall (attached photo), I don't understand why would the elastic recoil pressure of the lung is...
If you became brain-dead, would you want them to pull the plug?
May 17, 2013 I'd want the rest of me to stay alive. Sure it's a lousy way to live but it beats being all-the-way dead. Maybe if I make it 20 years they'll...
MRI bill question
May 15, 2013 Dear PFers, The hospital gave us a $12k bill for one MRI (head with contrast). The people I talked to at the hospital tell me that they do not...
- More from Physics Forums - Medical Sciences
More news stories
(Medical Xpress)—The human brain is able to identify individuals' voices by comparing them against an internal 'average voice' prototype, according to neuroscientists.
Neuroscience 2 hours ago | not rated yet | 0 |
A new study determined that children and adolescents with seizures involving the temporal lobe are likely to have clinically significant behavioral problems and psychiatric illness, especially depression. Findings published ...
Neuroscience 2 hours ago | not rated yet | 0
As the human body fine-tunes its neurological wiring, nerve cells often must fix a faulty connection by amputating an axon—the "business end" of the neuron that sends electrical impulses to tissues or other ...
Neuroscience 4 hours ago | 5 / 5 (1) | 0 |
A study by researchers at Henry Ford Hospital found "substantial evidence" that a regenerative process involving damaged nerve fibers in the spinal cord could hold the key to better functional recovery by most stroke victims.
Neuroscience 4 hours ago | not rated yet | 0 |
Ethnic background plays a surprisingly large role in how diabetes develops on a cellular level, according to two new studies led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
8 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0 |
Cinnamon: Can the red-brown spice with the unmistakable fragrance and variety of uses offer an important benefit? The common baking spice might hold the key to delaying the onset of –– or warding off ...
30 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0 |
Chinese and U.S. scientists have used virus isolated from a person who died from H7N9 avian influenza infection to determine whether the virus could infect and be transmitted between ferrets. Ferrets are often used as a mammalian ...
54 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0 |
By discovering the new mechanism by which estrogen suppresses lipid synthesis in the liver, UC Irvine endocrinologists have revealed a potential new approach toward treating certain liver diseases.
31 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0 |
UCLA researchers examining outcomes for advanced heart-failure patients over the past two decades have found that, coinciding with the increased availability and use of new therapies, overall mortality has decreased and sudden ...
35 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0
Aortic arch pulse wave velocity, a measure of arterial stiffness, is a strong independent predictor of disease of the vessels that supply blood to the brain, according to a new study published in the June issue the journal ...
35 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0