Optimism can be helpful to mental health

Optimism can be helpful to mental health

By Liz Lockhart

Are you a person who displays insatiable optimism even against all the odds?  I know I am.  My family regularly comments that they are amazed that I remain optimistic even when fate has knocked me down.  Now a new study reveals that this character trait is related to ‘faulty’ function of the frontal lobes.

Investigators at the University College London discovered that individual who are very optimistic about the outcome of events, tend to learn only from information that reinforces their optimistic view of the world.

The researcher set out to discover why human optimism is so pervasive, when realistically we are confronted with information that challenges these biased beliefs.  Why do people often seem to have an unrealistically optimistic view of their future?

The study was conducted at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

‘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 an well-being,- Dr. Tali Sharot explains. 

‘But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practicing safe sex or saving for retirement.  So why don’t we learn from cautionary information?’ Sharot added.

Researchers working on this new study discovered that our failure to alter optimistic prediction when presented with conflicting evidence is due to errors in how we process the information in our brains.

For the purpose of this study, 19 volunteers were presented with a series of negative life events, which included experiences such as car theft or Parkinson’s disease, while they were in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI scanner).

They were instructed to estimate the probability that this event would occur to them in the future.  After a short pause, the volunteers were told the average probability of this event to happen.  The participants saw a total of 80 of these events.

The participants were asked, after the scanning sessions, to estimate the probability of each event happening to them.  They also filled in a questionnaire to measure their level of optimism.

The participants did update their estimates based on the information given, but only if the information was better than expected, the researchers discovered.

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.

The results of the brain scans suggested why this might be.  All of the volunteer participants showed increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain when the information given was better than expected.  This activity processed the information to recalculate an estimate.

When the information was worse than estimated, the more optimistic a participant was, the less efficiently activity in these frontal regions coded for it.  This suggests that they were disregarding the evidence presented to them.

‘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,’ said Dr. Sharot.

‘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.’

Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, Dr. John Williams, 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 what happens when our brains do not function properly,’ Williams added.

Source: Wellcome Trust


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