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Looking on bright side may not be such a bright idea

Oct. 10, 2011 - 11:10 By

If you are always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, be warned -- it could be an oncoming train.

So says a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience which concludes that our well-known penchant for donning rose-tinted glasses may be a failure to store risk awareness in a key part of the brain.

Tali Sharot, a professor at University College London, was intrigued as to why so many people -- even when facing long odds or bleak prospects -- remain stubbornly, even pathologically, optimistic.

To learn more, 19 volunteers were asked to take part in an experiment.

Sharot and colleagues monitored subjects in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner as they were confronted with life situations ranging from unpleasant to catastrophic.

Having their car stolen, getting fired from their job, developing Parkinson‘s disease or cancer were among 80 scenarios evoked.

After each hypothetical disaster, the volunteers were asked to estimate the odds of the misfortune happening to them. While still in the scanner, they were then informed of the true average probability of the risk.

Sometime later, the volunteers once again quantified the odds for personally experiencing each scenario.

The researchers found that the volunteers updated their initial estimates -- but only when the true figures were less gloomy.

If, for example, they had predicted a 40 percent chance of contracting cancer but the average likelihood turned out to be 30 percent, they were far more likely to adjust their estimate sharply downward.

But if the odds were worse than originally thought, the volunteers simply ignored the true statistics.

“Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen too,” said Sharot.

“The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future,” said Sharot.

Why so?

In the brain scans, all participants showed increased activity in their frontal lobes -- which is strongly associated with emotional control -- whenever the real numbers were better than expected.

The activity indicated that the new information was being processed and stored.

But when the news was more dire than the first guesstimate, respondents who had rated highest for “optimism” in a personality test, taken beforehand, showed the least activity in their frontal lobe.

Sharot said the work showed that unbridled optimism had unperceived risks.

“Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing -- it can lower stress and anxiety, and be good for our health and well-being,” she said.

“But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving up for retirement,” she said.

Many experts, she pointed out, believe that the financial crisis that began in the fall of 2008 was in large part caused by wishful thinking about rising property values and the ability to play down or dismiss levels of debt.



“긍정적 사고가 위험대비 못하게 할수도”

미래를 항상 긍정적으로 보려고 노력하다 보면 위험에  대 한 대비도 적게 하게 돼서 때로는 우리 삶에 부정적 영향을 끼칠 수 있다는 연구 결 과가 나왔다.

이는 영국 런던대학교 탈리 샤롯 교수팀이 주도한 연구에서 드러난 것으로 9일(현지시간) 신경과학분야 권위지인 ‘네이처 뉴로사이언스’에 발표됐다.

이 연구에 따르면 항상 장밋빛 미래를 보려고 노력하다 보면 뇌의 중요한 부분에서 위험의식을 기억하지 못하게 될 수도 있는 것으로 나타났다.

샤롯 교수팀은 연구 지원자 19명을 상대로 불쾌한 일부터 비극적인 일까지 다양 한 상황을 마주했을 때 뇌의 상황을 기능성 자기공명영상(fMRI)으로 관찰했다.

차를 도둑맞거나 직장에서 해고됐을 때, 암에 걸린 사실을 알았을 때 등 80가지 상황을 주고 지원자들이 자신에게 일어난 불행의 정도를 측정하도록 한 다음 실제로 이런 일이 일어날 가능성은 어느 정도인지 알려주었다.

fMRI 촬영 결과 기대했던 것보다 실제로 제시된 수치가 낙관적일 때는 감정제어 와 연관된 전두엽의 활동이 증가했지만, 실제 상황이 더 끔찍할 경우는 긍정적인 대 답을 내놓았던 사람은 전두엽 활동이 최저로 떨어지는 것을 볼 수 있었다.

예상했던 것보다 곤란한 일이 일어날 가능성이 더 크면 실험 참가자들은 실제 통계자료는 단순히 무시해버리고 긍정적으로 생각하려 했다.

샤롯 박사는 낙관적인 사람일수록 미래에 대한 부정적 정보에 영향을 적게 받고 듣고 싶은 정보만 받아들인다는 것을 보여주는 결과라고 설명했다.

또 “물이 반밖에 없다고 생각하는 것보다는 반이나 차있다고 보는 것이 스트레스와 불안감을 줄이고, 건강과 행복에도 좋을 수 있지만, 반면에 이런 경우 은퇴 후 를 위해 돈을 저축하는 것과 같은 예방 행동을 취할 가능성이 적다는 의미도  된다”고 지적했다.