Are pessimistic brains different?

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?