Monday, July 18, 2011

Jeanne Erikson, PhD, PCC on Optimism




A June 6, 2011 TIME magazine article on brain wiring and optimism caught my attention. To quote the article,

“On average, [people] expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job, or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more.)”

I find this amazing in our day of “real” instant news overload. The article, by Tali Sharot who has written “The Optimism Bias” (2011), goes on to claim that although we might expect young people to be optimistic, even adults over 60 show this “optimism bias”. The TIME article points out that collectively we develop pessimism about wars, violence, the environment, and the euro, but individually we tend to be resilient. For example, a 2007 study found that 76% of persons were optimistic about the future of their own family—while over 70% simultaneously believed families in general had poor futures. This is partly credited to our unique brain wiring that allows humans to travel back and forth in our heads from the present to the imagined future. Our brains likely evolved with the ability to be positive side by side with the assurance/ imagining of our own death. This makes sense. Without the ability to imagine a life worth sticking around for, why bother?

When researchers took functional MRI images of brain activity in persons imagining positive futures, two areas lit up. These areas were most active in persons who were rated as most optimistic. The researchers were able to stimulate people to be more optimistic and lessen negative thinking when they gave them the task of choosing between two negative future events (i.e. a broken leg and a job firing). As they got to select their own fate, their brains were scanned for activity. Later, the volunteers re-rated the negative fates; the one they chose had become more positive The brain structures hard at work to create this magical feat were the frontal cortex and sub-cortical regions. These researchers found it is very likely we are hard-wired with the natural brain ability to mitigate negative thinking. I am reminded of the common directive “choose your poison.” Maybe there is some verifiable science behind this tactic.

An opposite experiment reported by Ms. Sharot had volunteers rate 80 destinations for their top vacation preference. They were then forced to select the “best” between two choices they had rated exactly the same. Interestingly, following more active brain regional interplay, the volunteers later also rated the rejected choice as less desirable . Sound familiar when you had two job offers, or you were at the Humane Society and made a choice between two puppies or kittens? Our brains seem to do magic, and assist us to become satisfied.

I am fascinated as to how I can help my own brain and that of my clients exploit this new scientific information. I am wrestling with the following questions, and would love your feedback and thoughts about the whole notion of how optimism is experienced and created.

Please respond back adding a comment  or to my twitter @serenesuccess.

 What is YOUR response to these questions?

1) When I feel discouraged, would constructing a choice between two options be a useful way to change my brain activity and change my mood?

2) When I help clients envision what they want as a coaching exercise, would it help them reach their outcome to also understand their own brain hard wiring and activity? If you were my client, would it help you or just confuse you?

3) Could one reason I feel happier when I exercise be that rhythmic exercise stimulates the inter- regional activity in the brain and make these type of optimism tasks easier?
I wish you active brain drama this month that leads you to more optimism!


Jeanne Erikson, PhD, PCC

on twitter at Serenesuccess

No comments: