Is the Brain Hard Wired for Optimism?

Another new book in the worn-out sociobiological genre is on its way:  Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain is due for release on June 14.  We can get a foretaste of her thesis in an op-ed article Sharot published on May 15 in the New York Times, titled “Major Delusions,” in which she takes the opportunity provided by the college graduation season to make a point not exactly relevant to completing college, an opportunity annually exploited by pundits, run of the mill as well as elite.  Sharot’s point is that “it is not commencement speeches or self-help books that make us hopeful.  Recently, with the development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques, we have gathered evidence that suggests our brains are hard-wired to be unrealistically optimistic.”

This is a statement that begs to be unpacked. There is first the subtle use of the word “suggests,” which is open to interpretation by the reader:  What does it mean when someone says that evidence “suggests” a stated conclusion?    Particularly, how strong is the assertion which follows “suggests”?  And what does she mean by “unrealistically”?   That is a value-laden word, not an objective or strictly scientific one, and clearly not quantifiable.

More serious, however, is the notion that, because a certain area of the brain shows activity when the person is thinking about a certain kind of topic, it therefore follows that “hard-wiring” is indicated, that the trait being studied, in this case optimism (in other cases, you name it), is genetic and the result of biological evolution.  As the Scientific American book club website puts it, Sharot “concludes by speculating that optimism was selected during evolution because positive expectations enhance the probability of survival.”  Speculating indeed!

At this point, prior to the publication of her book, one cannot know Sharot’s methodology or who her and her colleagues’ human subjects were; the NYT column reads as if her conclusions apply universally to all human beings.  The possibility of a cultural bias, however, is hinted at in an article published in New Scientist in October 2007, which states that at that time, at New York University, 15 volunteers were asked a series of questions and then asked to think about various scenarios, positive or negative, while lying in a brain scanner. The article did not state who these volunteers were, but since the experiments were conducted at an American university, one suspects that they were college students and likely Americans (rather than, say, foreign exchange students).  If this proves to be the case (and I do hope the book details how the experiments were conducted and gives adequate information on who the subjects were), the sample is too biased and probably too small to justify the very large conclusion that optimism was selected during evolution for any reason.  For one thing, American culture valorizes optimism under all circumstances, and American students would have imbibed the cultural value since birth.  Identical studies done on subjects located in other countries and speaking other languages, for example, seem called for.

For another thing, since everything human beings do and think is done and thought in the brain, that certain regions of the brain show activity when a subject is engaged in an activity or merely thinking about something does not lead to the conclusion that that particular activity or that particular way of thinking is hard wired.  Nor especially does it mean that that particular activity or way of thinking evolved in order to enhance survival or fitness.  All it means is that, yes, indeedy, the brain does it.  Brain scans can only show us where activity occurs—they cannot tell us if such activity is genetic rather than cultural nor can they parse the relative differences between or contributions of the two.

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