Our brains may be hardwired to look on the bright side, says neuroscientist Tali Sharot in this extract from her new book...
Our brains may be hardwired to look on the bright side, says neuroscientist Tali Sharot.
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. We tend to expect things will turn out better than they end up being. People rarely bare in mind they can get divorced, lose their job or be diagnosed with cancer; but we expect our children to be gifted; envision ourselves achieving more than our workmates; and overestimate our likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. People might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.
Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations – for ex. make us less likely to get health checkups or open a savings account. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers.
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities – better ones – and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry – the triumph of hope over experience.
Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health. Researchers studying heart-disease patients found that optimists were more likely than non-optimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under 60 were more likely to die within eight months than non-pessimistic patients of the same initial health, status and age.
This theory could fuel a revolution in psychology, by accumulating evidence that our brains aren't just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.
After living through 9/11, in New York City, I had set out to investigate people's memories of the terrorist attacks. I was intrigued by the fact that people felt their memories were as accurate as a videotape, while often they were filled with errors. A survey showed that memories were poor at remembering details of the event, such as the names of the airline carriers. Where did these mistakes in memory come from?
The core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future – to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.
To test this, I decided to record the brain activity of volunteers while they imagined future events and compare those results with the pattern I observed when the same individuals recalled past events. But something unexpected occurred. Once people started imagining the future, even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better. "I was getting my hair cut to donate to Locks of Love [a charity that fashions wigs for young cancer patients]. "I asked another participant to imagine a plane ride. "I imagined the takeoff – my favourite! – and then the eight-hour-long nap in between and then finally landing in Krakow and clapping the pilot for providing the safe voyage," she responded. No tarmac delays, no screaming babies. The world, only a year or two into the future, was a wonderful place to live in.
If all our participants insisted on thinking positively when it came to what lay in store for them personally, what does that tell us about how our brains are wired? Is the human tendency for optimism a consequence of the architecture of our brains?
(To be continued ...)