Brainy Optimism and Realism about the Future

To the Future

Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future.  And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky.   Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution.  Sharot  asks:

Where did these mistakes in memory come from?

Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.

So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool.  We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive.  We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.

 To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind.  . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations.  . . .  While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.

Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future.  Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity.  The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric.  There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future.  Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do.   God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them.  By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God.  The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.

While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression.  Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.

While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.

This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists.  They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.

A final point that caught my attention in the article:  when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.”  Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction.  The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future.  The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.

One thought on “Brainy Optimism and Realism about the Future

  1. cindy

    The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future. The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.

    A pre-ordained “do-over”. I like it.

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