Monday, May 4, 2015

The Neuroscience of Optimism and Pessimism

If you've been following along, I think you're beginning to get the idea that Who We Are - all our dreams, ideas, plans, personality and character traits, ambitions, fears, loves, the whole shebang - is a result of how the dizzying array of brain regions and inter-region communication all sort of comes together to present "you" to your own seat of conscious awareness and the world. Your entire assembled "you" depends a great deal on a) what brain regions you were genetically predisposed to be more prominent, b) how those were subsequently developed or suppressed through environmental factors starting from your time in the womb, through your two "rapid growth" periods (one roughly from 18 months to sixty months and another during your mid-teen years) all through your adult years. Environmental factors include an enormous variety of possibilities ranging from parenting, nutritional and educational availability, sleep quality, cultural pressures or freedoms and much, much so on. 

Today we're going to take a look at two very key foundations of "Who We Are". A very interesting paper came across my desk recently that very carefully examined the neuronal basis for optimism and pessimism. The recurring theme of this blog is that we have many "drivers" that steer us this way or that way through life or react to any given situation and the "hardware" involved in these two traits are going to play massive roles in how you get through life so when I got a chance to read through and study this paper carefully, I became quite excited (well, I do with almost any good neuroscience paper). "This is going to make great material for my blog", I thought (then my dopamine system, anticipating a juicy reward, made sure I knuckled down and got to it). 

Before we proceed, however, we need a little lesson in some basic brain anatomy. We're going to start with the biggest and clearest "division of neuronal real estate" there is in the brain - the two brain hemispheres, left and right respectively. Strictly anatomically speaking, they look like this:

[actually because the front of the brain is at the bottom, the left hemisphere is on the right side of the image and the right hemisphere on the left]

One of the basic principles of how brains work is that there are great divisions of labour that are spread throughout the brain and one of the biggest divisions is the left-right split (and from there it subdivides down into crazily tiny little "labourers" with different tasks). There are some myths, however, regarding this left/right division of neuronal labour and no doubt you've read or been told something along the lines of "right brained" and "left brained" people. This will be roughly akin to logical, methodical and analytical people being "left brained" and creative and artistic people being "right brained" but that has thoroughly been debunked, never really having had any solid scientific basis in the first place so you can toss that out of whatever bag of ideas you had about how brains work (and how you work). Nonetheless, it is very well known through enormous amounts of real world study (particularly the study of brain injuries or stroke damage) or clinical research (clever laboratory experiments) or through animal research that there are many specific tasks that are handled individually by either of the respective hemispheres. 

Divided as they are both anatomically and in task assignment, the two hemispheres work very closely together, rather like two separate computers running different software that work together to solve a single problem. As there would be with two separate but simultaneously and harmoniously working computers, there are communication "cables" that link them together and between the two hemispheres of our brains there is a massive "trunk line" of axons called the corpus callosum. There are several high traffic volume trunk lines in the brain (bundles of axons that carry major brain wide signaling) and the CC is probably the busiest because of the enormous amount of activity that must go on between the two hemispheres (I hope to get to the brain's connectome, which I introduced in Neuroscience 101, and get into this "trunk line" traffic in more detail in the not too distant future).

Now that we have an idea of what brain hemispheres are (I always try to get my posts to pull double duty), let's move on to this business about optimism and pessimism. 

First of all we have to clear up the common misconceptions of what these two terms mean. The natural tendency is to consider optimism as a "positive virtue" and pessimism as a "negative disadvantage" but this is not very accurate. We are generally inclined to view "optimists" as these positive, happy people always looking on the bright side of life who are great to be around and pessimists as these negative Nellys who are miserable to have in one's company and while these general impressions are not exactly inaccurate, it's not so simple as that. 

It is also widely believed that we have some sort of "choice" in the matter of optimism and pessimism and that to be happier one merely has to "choose" to be more positive, more optimistic and to be less negative and pessimistic as if we can just flip from one to the other like flipping a light switch but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. As with anything to do with how we consciously experience our outlook on life and experience life itself (our inner perception of "reality"), there is actually little conscious control over this (and I will get to this brier patch of a question of free will and conscious choice at some point) but is instead all determined (I will avoid the equally thorny issue of determinism, however) by what goes on "beneath the hood". 

So let's start off by better understanding what these terms mean.

Firstly, science looks at these terms quite differently than we do in the day to day world. In guiding your conscious you and your body through life, your brain has a tremendous number of jobs to do and virtually all of these jobs are handled by "behind the scenes" machinations within the brain (your conscious you would literally "crash" and/or melt down if you had to consciously deal with all these things) and one of the greatest of these subconscious jobs, or systems, is what I'll refer to here as "risk-benefit assessment" and what we term as "optimism" and "pessimism" are simply your brain running massive numbers of brain wide calculations and coming up with "odds" of being successful or not at any given choice presented to you. 

These choices might be big life decisions about whether to go to college or to learn a trade or something as mundane as what to have for lunch at the deli. It might be about whom to date or not or it might whether to turn right or left at a fork in the road. We generally make these decisions seemingly quickly because "we" are not making them at all but instead the "decisions" that consciously flash into our heads have been determined by vast numbers of subconscious systems running certain calculations and/or having certain "pre-sets" (in programming parlance) that steer our seeming "choices" one way or the other. And one of the most pre-eminent systems in steering our "choices" and thus guiding us through life is the hardware involved in risk assessment. 

Therefore, in strict risk assessment terms, "optimism" favours the odds of a good outcome in a given situation and "pessimism" does not favour the odds of a good outcome. Or "optimism" plays down the odds of a bad thing happening and "pessimism" plays up the odds of a bad thing happening. As life is full of peril and reward, victory and defeat, a balance of optimism and pessimism is actually critical in risk-benefit assessment. However, both optimism and pessimism are prone to cognitive errors and as such may result in either overly risky behaviour or overly cautious behaviour. 

Risky behaviour might range from being overly optimistic, throwing caution to the wind and entering a financially ill advised business venture, for example, or perhaps entering a disastrous marriage because you were so "sure" it would work out, or something like attempting to dash across a busy street or even becoming a gambling addict (who are famously prone to overestimating, or being too optimistic, about the odds of winning). 

Having a pessimistic bias, on the other hand, will result in being overly cautious and missing out on many otherwise good opportunities for gain and joy and thus perhaps living a very limited life where the specter of "defeat" lies around every corner. Possible great careers therefor may be avoided or loving relationships not entered and all manner of possible rewards missed. But it could also save one from entering overly risky ventures, making unwise purchases, getting into poor relationships and so on (and thus often saving your bacon).

So in properly understanding these two halves of our mental makeup, you must disabuse yourself of the notion that optimism is necessarily "good" and pessimism is necessarily "bad". Risk-benefit assessment that views a given situation towards a pessimist bias may well guide one away from danger or poor life decision and the ensuing trouble. On the other hand, optimistic risk-beneifit assessment may encourage one to go forth with a good opportunity that may have otherwise been missed. 

It is also a commonly mistaken assumption that one is either optimistic in every area of their life or pessimistic or that one is either optimistic or pessimistic all the time. One could well be overly optimistic in some areas (pursuing the opposite sex for example) and overly pessimistic in others (such as job prospects) and almost all of us will be feeling a little more of one or the other on any given day. 

There are other aspects of life decisions and directions that are affected. A consistently overly optimistic evaluation of one's abilities may keep one fruitlessly chasing a career path or business dream that one simply isn't equipped to achieve or, conversely, if one is too prone to pessimistic risk assessment bias preventing one from pursuing a job, career path or dream for which one is perfectly qualified or able. 

Successful and optimal living, therefore, requires a balance between optimism and pessimism. 

Proper risk-benefit outcome and abilities assessment - this balance between optimistic assessment and pessimistic assessment - is therefor going to be a huge factor in determining one's success in life as well as one's basic personality and vulnerability to mental health disorders so it behooves us all to best understand exactly how this system works and either achieves balance or not. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at what's "under the hood" and the "apps" - or brain hardware - that are responsible for each of these risk assessment biases, how they work and why and which will determine whether you're more an optimist or a pessimist (or perhaps a nice balance of both) and why. 

Back to our separate brain hemispheres and the division of labour between them, it turns out that optimism is mediated by the left hemisphere and pessimism by the right. 

Brain Regions Involved:

There are two small regions involved which are located in the frontal lobes and they are: the right inferior frontal gyrus (selectively encodes pessimistic information) and the left inferior frontal gyrus (selectively encodes optimistic information). The image below shows the right IFG and some of the other regions it's tied into (in reality, the wider network circuitry would be far more complex).

As with any brain regions, they do not of course work in isolation and will be part of various complicated "loops" (this happens to show a bit of what's involved in attention).

As with all collections of neurons that are involved in performing particular tasks along with the wiring that connects them to wider brain networks or "hubs", we are not created equal and so it is with the right and left inferior frontal gyrus respectively. As with any brain region, it's going to be a matter of hereditary (read: genetic) factors whether one region is stronger than the other along with environmental conditioning (and this topic of genetic factors and environmental conditioning is going to have to be something I go into proper detail elsewhere).  So depending on the luck of the genetic and environmental conditioning draws, your right inferior frontal gyrus (pessimistic region) might be more "robust" and dominant, or your left inferior frontal gyrus (optimistic) might be or it's entirely possible that you're blessed with a happy balance between the two. 

The thing with brain regions is that we almost never have any conscious idea what any of them are up to and if one is weak or another is dominant we will be unable to consciously know the difference. We'll be so used to those regions filtering information and creating "decisions" a certain way that we'll have no idea what any other way would be like, that's just our perception of reality. And even if we did, our brains would default back to their "normal operating state" without our awareness. 

This is roughly what is meant by "selective information processing". 

To quote our source paper

It was demonstrated in experiments where participants estimated their probabilities for experiencing a wide range of positive or negative events (e.g. having a happy marriage, winning the lottery, or suffering from cancer, Alzheimer's disease, etc.). Later, they were informed of the real probabilities of these events occurring to them, based on actual statistical records segmented by demographics, location and other characteristics. 

When asked to give a second estimate about their chances of experiencing the same events, the participants tended to update their knowledge mainly when the new information favored their previous position (i.e. when the positive events were statistically more likely to occur, or that the probabilities of negative events were lower than previously estimated). 

However, when the newly learned facts did not support their previous position, the participants tended to ignore it and at the second round they forgot to correct and update their estimations.

So you see what's happening here is that if people display an optimistic bias, it's because their incoming information tends to get routed through their more dominant left inferior frontal gyrus (optimistic region) and not so much through the right inferior frontal gyrus (negative region) and vice versa for negative biases. People (or we) don't try to do this. This is all very subconscious "data processing" and creations of mental outcomes. If the neuronal circuitry (among numerous other factors) is dominant for one or the other, that's just the way information is going to get routed, processed, outlooks created and "decisions" made.

Now, does all this mean we're locked into either being hopeless pessimists or foolishly risk taking optimists? Not at all. The brain, as we'll learn, is "plastic" and any region in the brain is able to be remolded and its function either enhanced or toned down. Through cognitive re-appraisal techniques, learned critical thinking skills and conscious and mindful effort (and there are various mental exercises that can be done to learn these skills and techniques), one can retrain these brain regions - in time - to achieve a better balance between optimism and pessimism. One can learn to better apply the right brain "pessimist" side to dampen down the inclination towards overly risky behaviour and one can learn to bring their "optimist" hardware on the left side more into play when evaluating life's choices. It does take daily conscious and mindful effort for any new behaviour to become habituated and for it to come more naturally to you. The neuroscience of patient effort is one we'll have to address another time, however. 

In the two decades I spent living in Asia or within Asian culture (which I did in my native Vancouver, BC), I learned a great deal of respect for Chinese philosophy and thought systems. And perhaps the best one that would apply here is the concept of yin and yang. Yin represents the darker side and yang the brighter side (to put it extremely simply). This philosophy states that you cannot ignore or favour either and that proper life is a balance of each.

I can think of no better area to apply that philosophy and life goal than to your right inferior frontal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus brain regions. :)


  1. Thanks for this article, loved it very well explained and helps me then explain to participants in a session about mindset. Much appreciated