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Are pessimistic brains different?

Are Pessimistic Brains Different?

A new study from Michigan State University says that there's a physical, biological difference in the brains of optimists and pessimists.

The study took 71 female participants and pre-screened them to see whether they were predisposed toward thinking the glass was half full or half empty. Then. they hooked them all up to an fMRI and showed them pictures of potentially dangerous or negative situations -- things like a woman being mugged at knifepoint. They were then told not to worry because every picture had positive outcomes, like the woman escaping.

What do you see? Half empty or half full?

The subjects who showed a more negative attitude in the beginning showed completely different brain activity than those who were more positive. The pessimists showed what the team referred to as a 'backfiring effect' -- not only could they not picture the positive outcome, but being asked to think positively actually increased their negative thoughts, almost like their brain was digging in its heels, saying 'nope, you can't talk me out of this. I know how it ends.'

Elaine Fox, the director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Essex, wrote a book a couple years ago called 'Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,' where she talked about brain differences between optimists and pessimists. Pessimists tend to have weaker connections between their prefrontal cortex and their amygdala, meaning the part of their brain associated with cognitive activity doesn't talk as well to the part of the brain associated with fear and fight or flight instincts. They also have more activity in their right frontal cortex than their left.

But are pessimists born that way or is this a case of neuroplasticity (negative life experiences training the brain to think negatively)? A study from the University of British Columbia last year did find connections between pessimistic behavior and a particular gene called ADA2b. People without a particular variant of it are unfailingly more optimistic. So yeah, pessimism could be genetic.

But why are we so pessimistic about pessimism? Sure, optimism puts less stress on us, causing us to take more risks, but a healthy dose of fear and pessimism is probably what kept us alive early on as a species. Too much optimism can lead to recklessness.

A 2011 study showed the optimistic brains can dig into misinformation just as readily as pessimists. Researchers asked people to estimate the likeliness of bad things happening to them -- being fired, getting a horrible disease, being cheated on by a spouse -- then, they were told the actual odds. If the odds were lower, they happily changed their estimates to match. If the odds were higher, they refused to change their estimates. "Nope," says the optimistic brain, "that's other people. It can't happen to me."

You could see where that would lead to a lack of preparedness.

But anyway, it's looking more and more like you were born with the outlook you have. If you're a pessimist, that means you get to blame your parents for your fear and misfortunes. If you're an optimist, you get to be glad you'll always wake up knowing things are gonna be okay.

Is there a pragmatist gene? How do we turn that one on?

Join the discussion

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Craig April 13 2014 at 10:59 AM

The glass is half full, What I really want to know WHO drank the other half, It was full when I put it down?

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PHIL and LINDA Craig April 13 2014 at 11:51 AM

If the glass was full when you set it down and someone drank half, then it is half empty. On the other hand if you set it down empty and someone poured water in , then it is half full.

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surrealra PHIL and LINDA April 13 2014 at 12:09 PM


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dean552014 April 13 2014 at 1:18 PM

glas is half empty--- its always been half empty=== don't know why you can't see that--- and don't know what i will do when it is completely gone---- guess thats just me

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quazachazed April 13 2014 at 1:57 PM

The problem with this is a glass half full and half empty is that people are not looking at the whole picture. I see a half a glass of water. It is only half full or half empty if I can see evidence of it only being poured that high or some of the water being removed. That would show if it was half full or half empty.

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tti12cu April 13 2014 at 2:00 PM

I'm basically a Realist... the glass is TOO BIG.

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roxs313 tti12cu April 13 2014 at 3:07 PM

Love it :) =;= Never conform to someone else's ideas. :)

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Bernie April 13 2014 at 2:05 PM

I see myself with having started at the beginning with an empty glass…. and my goal should be for the glass to be full…… so I always look at it as being half-full. If I see it as half-empty, then I’m going in the wrong direction….. not that I haven’t done so in my life, but personally I need to keep focus on refilling the glass…. not emptying it….

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roxs313 Bernie April 13 2014 at 3:05 PM

Great analogy :) =;=

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quazachazed April 13 2014 at 2:14 PM

I think the whole thing of optimism and pessimism is way too simplistic. It does not actually show and most of the time the reaction changes based on the situation and a lot of different factors. And why is pessimism seen as a bad thing all the time it is more on the side of caution. Hoping things will turn out and not doing anything about it is a foolish notion.

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imisssd April 13 2014 at 2:43 PM

Half a glass of whatever is 100% more than none. Celibrate!

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roxs313 imisssd April 13 2014 at 3:02 PM

I like the way you think :) =;=

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clarke2689 April 13 2014 at 2:51 PM

I see it as half full, I also see the world in trouble, but i see we can survive and will overcome adversity/

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roxs313 April 13 2014 at 3:00 PM

When I get asked that question my answer is, 'It depends on how thirsty you are'.

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roxs313 April 13 2014 at 3:13 PM

This reminds me of the question - do you think inside or outside the box ... (I loathe that question too), so my answer is, 'What shape is the box?' You will get a dumb stare back ... it's fun. :) =;=

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