A Closer Look at How Optimism in the Human Brain Works

By Emily Murray

The innermost workings of the brain remain among the most highly researched topics in the medical world and in society as well. The way people think, act and experience the world is so unique to one another and yet we are all made physically similarly. Of course we are shaped by our experiences, but what about those who seem to always have a sunny outlook on life? How does optimism work and what is it’s purpose? Why do so many of us cling to the belief we will be the next to strike it rich in the lottery when we know the odds are slim?

These questions have recently been explored and explained in a recent Scientific American article.

As it has been realized by psychologists for some time now (as quoted form the article), “people generally overestimate their likelihood of experiencing positive events, such as winning the lottery, and underestimate their likelihood of experiencing negative events, such as being involved in an accident or suffering from cancer.” So how does this type of blindness towards probable facts manifest itself in the brain?

A recent study in the journal Science called “The Computation of Social Behavior” explored these thoughts further.

What’s now being referred to as “prediction errors,” can be defined as the way the brain judges how well it is keeping track of the prediction of events it is making. Basically when you assume an outcome will happen, once it does or does not, your brain immediately asses the situation to see how far off the outcome was from the original prediction. This is part of the brain’s learning process so that it can make more accurate predictions in the future. This same process is also  used when we judge whether the advice we get from people throughout the day is good or bad.

These same areas of the brain came into play when participants in the research were tested to see how each responded when given good news (the risk of something bad happening is statistically lower than they may have expected) or bad news (bad things are more likely to happen). The participant”s brain reactions were much stronger when told the good news than the bad news and while the good news changed their prediction to be even more optimistic, the bad news did little to change the typically optimistic opinion.

The comparison was given in the Scientific American article to what the bride is likely thinking and feeling as she walks down the isle. You could remind her of the ever climbing divorce rate as she is about to take her vows and she will still feel 100 percent certain she will never divorce. The same could be said perhaps of a smoker thinking that they will not be affected by cancer. Despite statistics proving the opposite, often our brains will latch onto the more positive, or “good” news.