Posted by: wolf | April 15, 2008

Optimistic brains

popular media shows: it’s our brains that make the world go round. Well, what a surprise. This time I couldn’t resist commenting because I already knew the scientific paper in question, and because I have done psychological research on optimism (that’s what the paper is about) myself.

It was a headline on German E-Mail-provider’s website “Optimism emerges from the brain” that almost made me spill my coffee over the keyboard. I won’t really repeat how stupid such a line is. Where else should optimism come from? In this case, however, it is really mostly the journalists’ fault to come up with the Duh! factor. The original research isn’t that simplistic:

In an imaging study, participants were asked to think of “autobiographical events related to a description of a life episode (for example, ‘winning an award’ or ‘the end of a romantic relationship’)”, either of real events from their own past, or of future events that might happen to them; events were classified as “positive” or “negative” (the small number of neutral events were discarded). Afterwards, participants also were asked to rate their memories and the projections (imaginations of future life events) with regard to several qualities, e.g. how much the imagination felt “vivid” or how near or far in time it felt.

Apart from the imaging results (below) it was found that more optimistic participants (as measured with the “life orientation test” (LOT-R) reported that they expected “positive events to happen closer in the future than negative events, and to experience them with a greater sense of pre-experiencing”.
I find this interesting from a purely psychological point of view, even if it is not a wholly original result: it shows that optimism is not just a static more-or-less dimension, but instead refers to something proactive. Being optimistic means to be able to imagine positive outcomes.

Now for the neuroscience results: when imagining positive events, there was more brain activity (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent signal) in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and the amygdala than when imagining negative events, the former region having been identified as involved in the processing of autobiographical memory as well as the imagination of future events, and the latter as involved of the processing of emotion, also in autobiographical memory. Most interestingly, rACC activity was correlated with LOT-R scores: participants with a greater difference in BOLD signal for positive vs. negative events on average had higher scores on the LOT-R. Again this is interesting because the imaging results refer to actively imagining something, whereas the LOT-R is assumed to measure stable differences.

So after all this is an example of a nice integration of psychological with neuroscience results: the imaging results from active imagination of future events lend some validity to the static LOT-R questionnaire scores.

Sharot, T., Riccardi, A.M., Raio, C.M., Phelps, E.A. (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature, 450(7166), 102-105. DOI: 10.1038/nature06280


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