Welcome to the ongoing saga of my family and our attempts to eat right, exercise, lose weight and still enjoy life, while also managing the care and treatment of injuries, chronic conditions, and cancer follow-up. Convinced that a healthy lifestyle and reasonable fitness level is attainable by even the most committed of workaholics, couch potatoes, and those with health issues, join us as we explore food and wellness choices, try to put new habits in place, and hold each other accountable along the way. Healthy food can taste delicious and wellness practices need not be burdensome. At least, that is our hope, especially as we share resources with others who are working to be well.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Optimism = Brain Malfunction?

I heard a news report this morning that optimism may be due to a brain malfunction.  So, that must mean that my eighty-year-old mother is dysfunctional because she is one of the most optimistic and, I might add, well-adjusted people I know.  Given that news headlines tend to be slightly inaccurate, I decided to see if I could get the scoop, so to speak.

The journal Nature Neuroscience published the results of a study about unrealistic optimism.  Here is their description of the article from their website.  I couldn't read it as I lack the necessary subscription, plus I wasn't willing to pay $32.00 for instant-read privileges:
Unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait that influences domains ranging from personal relationships to politics and finance.  How people maintain unrealistic optimism, despite frequently encountering information that challenges those biased beliefs, is unknown.  We examined this question and found a marked asymmetry in belief updating.  Participants updated their beliefs more in response to information that was better than expected than to information that was worse.  This selectivity was mediated by a relative failure to code for errors that should reduce optimism...These findings indicate that optimism is tied to a selective update failure and diminished neural coding of undesirable information regarding the future.
Unable to access the "horse's mouth," if you will, I looked elsewhere online to get some information.  Here are two headlines that I encountered;  interesting how one sounds optimistic and the other...well...doesn't:

"Human Brain is Optimistic 80% at a Time"
"Is Your Glass Always Half Full?  Optimism Could Be Down to a Brain Malfunction"

It is important to remember that the study focused on "blind" or unrealistic optimism:  the belief that positive (or negative) events are more (or less) likely to happen to you personally versus someone else.  The study results found that people who are very optimistic tend to pay attention to information that reinforces their previously held optimistic belief.  Health wise, that can be a good thing;  it can lower stress and anxiety levels.  On the downside, it can mean that people fail to react or respond appropriately to precautions.

The brain malfunction part comes from the fact that, when presented with information that suggested a better-than-perceived event outcome, all study participants showed increased activity in their frontal lobes.  But then, when the information presented led to a worse-than-expected event outcome, the more optimistic study subjects showed less activity in those same frontal lobes, meaning they were disregarding the new evidence.  Apparently, that disparity in frontal lobe activity could be the result of a brain malfunction.  Easier-to-understand conclusion:  we pick and choose the information we listen to.

I don't know about you, but I pretty much knew that about myself and, for that matter, other people.  Does that mean that we all have a brain malfunction?  As a layperson with absolutely no experience in this field of research, I am unsure if I can agree with these study results.  The brain is pretty malleable.  Isn't it possible that the "selectivity" response to information that was observed in the study is a learned, adaptive response rather than a structural problem?  Sounds like it may be time for further study.

Another perspective on this topic from October 2007:  Viewing Life Through a Rose-Colored Cortex.

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