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Optimism is All In the Brain


When most people look towards the future, they expect things will be as good, or even better, than they are now. They are considered optimists. And that rosy outlook seems to be programmed into most people's brains.

New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps says that scientists have known for some time that people tend to be optimistic about themselves. "Even though we know that half the time things turn out above average and [half the time] things turn out below average, when it comes to something relevant to you, you usually imagine yourself in the above-average group," she points out.

Phelps had subjects lie in a brain-scanning machine as she asked them to picture a future event. Several parts of the brain became active when subjects imagined positive events. Phelps says she wasn't surprised to see that one of those parts was the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with memory and emotion.

But she was surprised when another part of the brain also became active, an area behind the eyes called the rostral anterior cingulated. "This region, we know, is important in regulating your emotional responses, so that they're adapted to the situation," she explains. "This is a region that we know is important in changing information to be healthy for you in a psychological and emotional way, and this region we think is actually underlying this change we see when we change things in the future to be more positive."

Phelps says researchers are finding that in depressed people, these two parts of the brains are less active.

Phelps suggests that a behavioral consequence of that lowered activity could be a tendency to be pessimistic. She says scientists could come up with a way to stimulate these parts of the brain in depressed people as a way of treating the depression. But she warns that's still many years off.

Her research is published in the most recent issue of the journal Nature.

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