The Human Brain is Wired for Optimism. Yes, Even Yours.

Even if you don't consciously feel lucky, you behave as if you are. Don't believe us? Do you ever jaywalk, push your car beyond the speed limit or sip milk a day past its expiration date? The consequences can't happen to you, right? And you're certainly not going to get sick in your old age, are you? We all believe we're luckier than we really are. Rather than sheer naivety or fantasy, science suggests that the human brain could actually be hardwired to favor optimism over realism. And yes, that means that even the most pessimistic, gloomy people you know are prone to see the sunny side of life, too — no matter how much they might insist otherwise!

Is Optimism Bliss?

The phenomenon has been dubbed "optimism bias." In a recent TED talk, cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot describes it as "our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events." And what's more, she says people are largely "oblivious" to the fact.

This begs the question: Given the body's multitude of self-protective mechanisms, such as scabbing after scraping a knee, watering eyes at the detection of a foreign object, or any sensation of pain, why would the brain delude us into thinking we are luckier or safer than we are when it comes to our own mortality and those of people we love?

The answer is certainly complex, but one reason may be that a healthy sense of optimism improves our health. Ask any mind-body-spirit type about the virtues of "positive thinking," for instance, and you'll likely get an earful of reasons. But beyond the new age circles, science and medical professionals have discovered that an optimistic state of mind lowers stress and can improve physical well-being. In patients with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, studies have shown that those with more optimistic perspectives were more likely to follow doctor's orders when it came to making lifestyle changes to reduce future risks. Conversely, those with negative world-views were more likely to succumb to their illness within months after treatment than more optimistic peers.

Selective Scanning

So, optimism is good, but there's a fine line between positivity, and recklessness and self-destruction. To learn more about why people still take needless risks despite logically understanding the potential dangers, Sharot conducted a test. Using a functional MRI scanner, she pinpointed two areas of the brain that responded to positive and negative information: When given good news, the left inferior frontal gyrus had an very active response. Next, they discovered that the other area under the spotlight, the right inferior frontal gyrus, did not respond adequately when given bad information, and it seemed that the more optimistic the test subject was, the less response their right inferior frontal gyrus exhibited.

Regardless of what's happening in the brain, our species wouldn't last long without hope. So enjoy your built-in optimism, just don't let it blind you.

The Optimism Bias

Written by Jamie Ludwig July 17, 2017

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