Optimism: Just Plain Irritating, or Innate?

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Have you ever wondered why certain people tend to be extremely upbeat and positive all the time?  You know the type.  Their dog just died after 20 years, but rather than bury their head in a gallon of Häagen-Dazs with a tablespoon and bib like the rest of us – they’re thankful for the opportunity to rescue a mutt from the nearest pound (a.k.a. Doggie Death Row).  When Fido gnaws the leg off their favorite chair with his cute little baby teeth, they throw a party to show off the new one AND they’re tickled pink when their own leg falls off from working overtime because, hey, they still have their arms to pet the pup with.  That type.

If you’re honest, you know a few.  They may even get under your skin like a tick; every positive word or deed just sucks the pessimistic life blood you cherish right out of your veins.   God forbid that you or I should ever be accused of wearing rose-colored glasses!  We’re well rounded, grounded, centered and every other healthy, holistic and – most importantly – realistic word that human beings can be…or so we thought until Tali Sharot had the nerve to announce that we may be born with rose-colored glasses.  Who?  Me?  Never.

When I first read “The Optimism Bias,” by Tali Sharot in Time Magazine I was shocked and a bit skeptical.  The notion that our brains tilt toward the positive is a bit of a stretch for me when I look around at the world we live in and listen to the nightly news; doom and gloom abounds.  I don’t have to look past my own front doorstep to be confronted with life’s bitter twists and turns.  It’s enough to make you want to throw in the towel when you’re most vulnerable.  However, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t like the idea that we’re incredibly resilient creatures who are hardwired for hope; a little hope can go a long way in my book.  So, let’s look deeper into her work for a moment…

It’s difficult for me to sum up Sharot’s neuroscientific research on silver linings being the result of activity deep within our brains.  The whole “Cerebrum,” “Thaiamas,” “Cerebellum,” “Prefrontal Cortex,” “Hippocampus” stuff is a little much for me (even though I’ve been accused every now and then of being a bit of a Wordsmith myself).  What I really love about her research is that there’s accumulating evidence that our brains aren’t just “stamped by the past.  They are constantly being shaped by the future.”  When we’re poor at remembering details of certain events in our past, scientists who study memory propose that: “memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone.  Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future – to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come.”

Stop for a moment and take that in.  The computer system in our body that we call the brain is not designed to perfectly replay past events like a video which could wound us for life.  It’s designed to go with the flow so we can create our future in our mind any way we imagine.  That’s awesome news for those of us who prefer to move from victim to victor in life.

Since memory is a reconstructive process in Sharot’s opinion, occasionally some details are deleted and others inserted.  While testing people’s memories of 9/11 as part of her investigation into the brain’s response to memories, she was “intrigued by the fact that people felt that their memories were as accurate as a videotape, while often they were filled with errors.  A survey conducted around the country showed that 11 months after the attacks, individuals’ recollections of their experience that day were consistent with their initial accounts (given in September 2011) only 63% of the time.”  Where did the discrepancies come from?

If Sharot’s right, it’s almost like our brain gives us permission to imagine things in a way that we can live with.  Our world as we imagine it today becomes our new truth tomorrow.  A year from now, we may imagine it differently to give us something new and exciting to look forward to.  To think positively about all our different options, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future.  How bad can that be?  It keeps us moving forward, one new positive thought after another.

As an estate planner, I yearn for this research to have a positive impact on families facing Alzheimer’s; even if it’s only in some small way – especially for care givers.  Being a care giver of elderly parents has its challenges, no matter how much you love them.  If you add the stress and strain of Alzheimer’s disease to the mix, it’s a whole new dynamic.  If people could make their lives happier by believing that it’s possible to stay positive, that’s a step in the right direction.  Even if they’re normally negative in their outlook – science seems to support hope for changing those brain waves to help people see the brighter side of life…something family’s living with Alzheimer’s desperately need.  The future I imagine with my wonderfully complex and flexible brain envisions monumental breakthroughs around dementia.  I invite you to dream with me.

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