Richard G. Petty, MD

Optimism and the Brain

Humans have a wonderful ability to expect positive events in the future, even when there is no shred of evidence to support them. One of the key components of resilience is optimism. Though there is data to show that there is a genetic contribution to optimism, it is also a psychological attribute that can flow from life experiences as well as attitude that can be developed. Though the motivational coaches who tell us that putting on a happy face will make you happy and optimistic are probably overstating the truth! A lack of optimism is often a sign of clinical depression so learning more about it, is not just an academic exercise.

New research just published in the journal Nature indicates that there are two regions of the brain linked to optimism.

The team from New York University and University College, London, says that the act of imagining a positive future event, for example winning an award or receiving a large sum of money, activates two brain areas: the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulated cortex (rACC). The finding ties in with earlier studies that suggested that these brain regions malfunction in depression. (1,2)

The investigators first measured how optimistic 15 volunteers were using a standard questionnaire. They were then scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while reflecting on one of a number of potential scenarios.

In one part of the trial, subjects followed specific instructions to recall a negative event in the past, such a funeral that they had attended in the past five years. In another experiment they had to imagine what it would be like to be involved in a car crash in the near future. At other points in the study subjects had to reflect on positive events such as winning an award in the past or receiving a large sum of money in the future.

Reflecting on both past and future events activated the amygdala and the rACC regions of the brain. However, positive events, and particularly those imagined in the future, generated a significantly larger response in these regions than reflecting on negative events.

When imagining happy events, the more pessimistic subjects in the trial had less activation of these brain areas than their optimistic counterparts when imagining happy events.

For some time now, many researchers have assumed that the amygdala and rACC are only involved in negative thoughts and negative reactions, but this research indicates that they have an important role in signaling cheerful thoughts. And, what is more, these are also regions of the brain that have been implicated in depression. Previous research has suggested that patients with depression have decreased nerve signaling and fewer cells in the rACC and amygdala.

Is this why people with depression find it so hard to generate positive thoughts?

This is important work that will likely have a great many practical applications.

“Children are born optimists and we slowly educate them out of their heresy.”
–Louise Imogen Guiney (American-born English Poet, 1861-1920)

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
–Helen Keller (American Blind and Deaf Swedenborgian Philosopher, 1880-1968)

“No man is so old as not to think he can live one year more.”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero (Roman Political Figure and Orator, c.106-43 B.C.E.)

“The way to become happy
Is to think
And to feel
That the very best is yet to come.”

–Sri Chinmoy (a.k.a. Chinmoy Kumar Ghose, Indian Philosopher and Spiritual Teacher, 1931-2007)

logo logo logo logo logo logo