July 2011

Our brains see the glass half-full

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Most of us know that eyewitness testimony is often inaccurate. But what about our own memories? Especially our recollections of emotionally charged events—so-called “flashbulb memories”? We’re pretty sure that they’re vividly accurate, even when they aren’t.

Why that is is just one of a complex of psychological phenomena Tali Sharot explores in her illuminating and vastly entertaining first book, The Optimism Bias. Sharot, a researcher in neuropsychology at the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at University College London, makes two major claims here: Most of us are optimistic, and we are optimistic because our brains have evolved to make us so. Why? Because the optimistic belief that we are all slightly better than the average “makes health and progress more likely,” and that set of mild illusions has helped humans to survive and progress. “Optimism,” Sharot writes, “may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into our most complex organ, the brain.”

Such observations could smack of psychobabble, except for the fact that Sharot and colleagues have produced fascinating brain imaging experiments and data that support her assertions. You can’t read this book and disagree that, as Sharot writes, “the human brain . . . is extremely efficient at turning lead into gold.”

Sharot subtitles her book “A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain.” “Tour” is a good description, as she explores facets of our ability to delude ourselves, taking us on a magical mystery tour of our perceptions, rather than making a step-by-step argument. “Tour” also evokes the pleasure Sharot gives us in her surprising, research-based observations (“Political stability is one of the nine strongest indicators of a nation’s well-being, and human rights is one of the two strongest.”), her use of contemporary examples (“from the dark skies of Sham el-Sheikh to the crowded lockers of the Los Angeles Lakers”) and her pleasing sense of humor (discussing experiments with mice, for example, she acknowledges that humans are quite different but notes “like humans, however, these mammals are frequently found in the kitchen in the middle of the night, searching for leftovers”).

Sharot also acknowledges that optimism, at least extreme optimism, has its downside—sometimes leading to risky, life-threatening behavior. So while she doesn’t directly say it, her book certainly suggests that we need a little humility to accompany our certainties. A little—but not too much.

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