Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Science of Optimism by Tali Sharot, Time Magazine

Despite no dearth of disappointments in and around our lives, we keep our sanity and face the future. How? Because we are programmed to be hopeful.

The Time magazine has carried an interesting piece on our tendency to be optimistic as its cover story this time – The Science of Optimism. The article analyzes how optimism or hope shapes our relationships, professional lives, outlook, etc. It says optimism has helped us evolve into what we are today, an advanced race.

But what makes us optimistic? A memory that tends to recollect inaccurately.

Our memory, Tali Sharot, the author suggests, quoting scientists, tends to recall inaccurately partly because the neural system responsible for memory might have not evolved for memory alone. Its evolution, in fact, could have been for the opposite reason: to help us imagine a positive future.

The author interviewed some witnesses of the 9/11 attack asking them to recollect their experience and found that only a little above 60 per cent could recall details accurately.

But, as part of a study, when the author asked people to imagine their future, they imagined such that “Even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better.”

By citing studies conducted by her and her peers, the author shows how our mind predicts the future with a glow of optimism subtracting adverse possibilities that can lead to an alternate future. However, when it foresees adversities in the future, it helps us to prepare for it by saving money, storing food, carrying an umbrella while leaving home, etc.

The hopeful tilt of mind recalls disappointing experiences, like professional failures, romantic heartbreaks, etc., as things that helped us evolve and become more experienced human beings, instead of wasteful experiences that only hurt.

A neural mechanism, located in the frontal part of our brain, is responsible for this optimistic bent of mind which helps us imagine an optimistic future or promotes slightly irrational thinking. People in whom this neural system is not active suffer from depression. And so when a depressed person predicts the future, he does it without the additional glow of optimism (or irrationalism) – and predicts more accurately than a normal person.
The article has much more than this.

The mind is complex, intriguing and scary.

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