Looking on the Bright Side

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot has found through her research that when it comes to optimism, the way our mind approaches — and even tricks — us is a function of survival. In her book, “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain,” she outlines how we humans tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events in the future while at the same time downplaying the likelihood of negative ones. This “optimism bias” is essentially the result of the brain distorting reality, which can have both positive and negative outcomes, Sharot says.

Brain World: How much of optimism can be attributed to one’s biological makeup, and how much is external factors?

Tali Sharot: This is unclear. There is evidence suggesting that specific genes are related to optimism — the same genes that have been associated with depression. Indeed, while healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased; they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively unbiased when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.

BW: If optimism is biological, can it be learned?

TS: There is some evidence suggesting it can. Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement, suggests that optimism can be learned by changing the way we interpret events. In one study, Seligman identified a group of college students with a pessimistic way of thinking. He then trained half of the students on techniques for adapting an optimistic way of thinking, the other students — the control group — were not given training. Months later, students who received training had fewer self-reported symptoms of physical illness and fewer doctors’ visits than students in the control group.

BW: How does being an optimist affect one’s health?

TS: Optimism keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress, and improves physical health. For example, a study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status, and age. Optimists are also more likely to take actions that promote health. Researchers studying heart attack patients found that optimists were more likely to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets, and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk.

BW: Your interest in optimism was sparked by studying memories surrounding 9/11. What’s in it for the brain to alter the recollection of a traumatic event?

TS: The function of memory is to be able to use past experiences to guide future thoughts and actions. If an event is salient in our minds, and we believe it to be true, we will act upon it regardless of its absolute validity. For example, if one night you are violently attacked walking alone in the park, you are unlikely to enter a park unaccompanied at dark ever again. It does not matter if you accurately remember which part of the park it was, what the attacker looked like, or the exact time of the attack. Our brain does not have the capacity to hold on to all pieces of information. However, it is crucial that you have a confident memory of the episode, so that it serves as a constant reminder not to walk alone in secluded areas at night.

BW: Could understanding the neural component to optimism lead to new ways to treat depression?

TS: Absolutely. If we understand how the resilient, healthy brain works, we will gain a better understanding of what may be going wrong in the depressed brain. This knowledge can lead to the development of new treatments, including pharmacological and behavioral treatments, and even deep-brain simulation.

BW: Do you think that to be an optimist you have to be, to some extent, not as aware or analytical?

TS: No. You may be aware of being optimistic and acknowledge that most people are, after reviewing the scientific evidence. At times, this knowledge may even change your actions. That awareness, however, rarely shatters the illusion. The glass is likely to remain half full. Analytical people are just as optimistic as individuals who are less analytical.

BW: What do you think is the biggest danger in being too optimistic?

TS: Too-positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen, or open a savings account.

BW: Did you have any theories or misconceptions about optimism that were debunked after your research?

TS: Older people are just as optimistic as younger ones — this surprised me. You would think that with more life experience we will become more realistic, better able to see the future clearly. Turns out that’s not true. A 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults.

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