(The following excerpt from Are Pessimistic Brains Different? recently appeared on aol.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
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.
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.’
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.
But anyway, it’s looking more and more like you were born with the outlook you have.