Relentless Optimism Linked to Faulty Frontal Lobe Function

By Rebecca Jones


Ever wonder why someone will continue to see the glass half full regardless of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary? According to new research conducted by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging a fault in the function of the frontal lobe of the brain could be to blame.


Scientists have long been puzzled by people’s ability to predict their futures in ways that are unrealistically optimistic; how human optimism can be so indomitable regardless of a contrary reality. While there are certain mental health benefits to wearing rose colored glasses such as lower stress and anxiety they can also leave us grossly unprepared for the future because they make us less likely to take precautionary measures.


To conduct their study researches assembled 19 volunteer and presented them with a series of negative experiences, everything from car theft to a cancer diagnosis, while they were lying in an MRI. This allowed the researches to study the brain activity of participants while they were presented with some 80 different life events. After each event the volunteers were asked how likely they thought these events were to occur and then after a short pause were told the average likelihood of these events.


At the end of the session the participants were asked again what they thought the likelihood of these events occurring to them was and were asked to fill out a questionnaire that would measure their level of overall optimism.


According to the results of the study people did update their predictions after hearing the actual averages but in very inconsistent ways. If they discovered that something was less likely than they thought to actually happen than they would greatly adjust their estimate. However, if they found out that an even was more likely to occur then they had predicted they tended to adapt their estimate much less indicating that they tended to ignore any data incongruent with their optimistic beliefs.


With the help of the MRI brain scans scientists were able to see what actually happens in the brain when this process is taking place. When the information was better than expected all volunteers showed increased activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, this activity was used to process the information and recalculate an estimate. However when the volunteers were presented with a worse outcome than expected, the more optimistic the participant the less activity was witnessed in the frontal lobe. This suggested to researchers that these participants were ignoring the information presented to them.


Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, summed up the experiment in the following way: “Being optimistic must clearly have some benefits, but is it always helpful and why do some people have a less rosy outlook on life? Understanding how some people always manage to retain optimistic could provide useful insights into what happens when our brains do not function properly.”


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