In her new book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, neuroscientist Tali Sharo takes a look at why human beings are overly positive despite dire circumstances like disease, poverty, terrorism, and other seemingly negative obstacles.
Through brain-imaging studies conducted in the UK, Israel, and the U.S., Sharo found that memory and optimism are linked, and many people are overwhelmingly positive about their futures despite current conditions.
I was puzzled: Why had our brains developed a mechanism that would create highly vivid memories that were not necessarily accurate? Around the time my colleagues and I published our scientiﬁc investigation of memories of 9/11, a group of researchers at Harvard University proposed an intriguing answer. The neural system responsible for recollecting episodes from our past might not have been developed for that purpose at all. Rather, the core function of this system, which many had believed evolved for memory, may, in fact, be to imagine the future.
Brain-imaging studies show that the same brain structures that are engaged when we recollect our past are called upon when we think of the future. These two fundamental human thought activities rely on the same brain mechanisms; they draw on similar information and underlying processes. To imagine your upcoming trip to Barbados, for example, you need a system that can ﬂexibly reconstruct novel scenarios, one that can take bits and pieces of memories from your past (your last vacation to a warm country, images of sandy beaches, your partner in his swimsuit) and bind them together to create something new (you and your loved one wearing straw hats on a beach in Barbados next month)—an event that has yet to happen. Because we use the same neural system to recall the past as we do to imagine the future, recollection also ends up being a reconstructive process rather than a videolike replay of past events, and thus is susceptible to inaccuracies.
Although some may label overly optimistic people as annoying, maybe they’ve just cornered the market on “making it.” There’s something to be said about someone who continues to work toward their goals despite whatever obstacles are thrown in their direction.
According to Sharo, optimism doesn’t mean just seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, it’s also an essential part of our human experience. Imagine if our foremothers and fathers had a negative view of the future. Would they have fought so hard for their freedom or would they have just resigned themselves to be treated as second-class citizens? Because I am sitting here, able to control my own destiny, I think it’s the former.