At 21 Minutes – Tali Sharot’s research on brain optimism : benefits and risks for mental health
One of the most important insights produced by neuroscience in recent years is undoubtedly the discovery of how much the ability to imagine characterizes us as a species and the difference it has made in our evolution. The ability to abstract ourselves from the data present to our senses at a given moment, or in other words our abstract thinking ability, is what distinguishes us from other animals. The ability to imagine is a function of our brain that is normally even active unintentionally. Several researchers have argued that the main activity of our brain is precisely imagining the future that awaits us. We also know that, to represent the future, the brain resorts to the same areas that are responsible for storing memories. So, the brain uses the past to construct the image of the future, but this same process can happen automatically or consciously and this makes a huge difference.
In her speech at 21 Minutes, Tali Sharot, now a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at University College London and MIT, illustrated how the brain habitually tends to imagine positive scenarios for the future, activating mainly a part of the frontal lobe, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex – abbreviated rACC – which regulates the deep areas in the brain involved in motivation and emotions. Sharot and colleagues observed how, in cases of depression, the rACC and the deep emotion-related areas do not communicate effectively.
Statistically, the finding of the research is that, under ordinary conditions, individuals tend to expect the future to be slightly better than it will actually be; people suffering from mild depression are more realistic in predicting future outcomes; whereas those suffering from severe depression tend to have a pessimistic bias.
So it is likely that without at least a pinch of optimism – says Sharot – all of us would be slightly depressed, because optimism seems to safeguard our mental health, and not only our mental but also our physical health. Optimists have been shown to be healthier and live longer.
According to another, similar study on 100,000 women between the ages of 50 and 65, optimistic women were 30 per cent less likely to die of cardiac arrest than those with a pessimistic outlook. Other studies confirmed the same tendency in male subjects.
Sharot’s reasearch therefore focusses on identifying the ways in which optimism is good for our health . Two hypotheses have been developed to answer this question. The first regards future expecations. When we expect positive events in our future, Cos’è lo stress? Dal punto di vista clinico, lo stress è... More and anxiety are reduced with significant health benefits. The second hypothesis is that if we expect to be healthy, we have a greater probability to carry out those actions that are necessary to indeed be healthy. In fact, it has been shown that there is a higher probability that optimists follow medical advice and eat healthier.
So, optimism acts a little like a self-fulfilling prophecy – concludes Sharot – If we expect positive events, we are motivated to act in a way to generate those events.
As a researcher she warns us that there is another side of the coin however. The “rose colored glasses” of the brain, or in other words the optimism bias, can lead us to underestimate health risks. In their studies, Sharot and colleagues compared participants’ expectations with statistical data on various diseases. The purpose of the experiment was to test our ability to learn from data about our health and the risks to it. What resulted was that we tend to acquire data easily when these confirm our positive expectation and reject them if they are in opposition. For example, if the statistical data regarding the risk of a certain disease is better than we expect, our prediction improves in accordance with the data. If, on the other hand, we are presented with a statistic that we are more likely to fall ill than we thought, then our prediction does not worsen in accordance with the data, but to a much lesser extent.
These are very valuable pointers to improve our ability to envision, which, to be effective, must always be based on facts and, from those, produce sustainable scenarios. Neuroscience confirms that optimism is a very powerful tool for our mental health, but also that it requires self-awareness to become an effective tool in our hands.