Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain

  • "I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life, than on the nature of those events themselves."
    Wilhelm von Humboldt
In Elaine Fox's Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain we get a pop roundup of the mind of the optimist and the pessimist - which reflect 'primal inclinations to seek pleasure or avoid danger'.  We are evolved to tune in to danger but as Fox illustrates, this protection mechanism can come to dominate, yielding a negativity - with detrimental results.

Fox turns up some intriguing research from the Framingham Study,
  • "Taking in to account for all known risk factors for heart disease - obesity, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and so on - a report by Rebecca Voelker in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1996 reported that women who BELIEVED that they were more prone to heart disease were FOUR times more likely to die than women who did not believe."
We are all aware of the power of positive and negative thought, and this is a evolutionary trait, where the pessimist's ability to 'tune in to danger' was selected for.  These abilities have been probed by showing images in quick succession to test subjects.  They'd be shown a range of images such as flowers and mushrooms, and had to press a button to show whether they were 'the same' or 'different'.  Occasionally the image of a snake or spider was inserted in to the images and when they did, response times became MUCH quicker,
  • "This is the dark side of our defensive system.  The neurobiology of fear explains how our emergency brain can take over our mind and why this makes pessimism a common - and potentially dangerous - outlook on life.  The ancient parts of our emergency brain ensure that we are drawn inexorably to potential danger.  No surprise, then, that bad news sells: the attraction of danger is enduring and not easily overcome.  Newspapers, TV, and radio all bombard us with negative stories - financial meltdowns, recession, global warming, swine flu, terrorism, war.  The list is endless, and alongside the natural tendency of our brain to zine in on bad news, this pessimism can be overwhelming."
A version of the experiment above was repeated with a simple twist, an electronic shock that was randomly administered.  However, test subjects almost all thought that there was a correlation between the shock and images of spiders and snakes, over images of flowers or mushrooms.  This kind of illusory correlation manifest across general anxieties, such as worries about weight,
  • "...186 women [were shown] a series of photographs of women who varied on a range of attributes.  Two of the key attributes they were interested in were how happy or sad the women looked and whether they seemed to be overweight or underweight.  The psychologists were careful to make sure there was no actual association between people's weight and how happy they looked.  Overweight, underweight, and normal-weight women were equally likely to be smiling.  What the  volunteers 'saw' was something completely different.  They were convinced that the thinner women were much happier and that the fatter women looked sadder.  And this illusory correlation was even stronger among those women with higher levels of eating disorder.  This shows how easily our 'fear brain' can colour our perceptions of the world, tricking us in to making misinterpretations and false assumptions about how things really are."
Fox goes to great length to show how we can reshape our brain - it is maleable.  The evidence for this is myriad - from the enlarged hippopocampus of cabbies who have The Knowledge to the brains of musicians - where imaging has shown that those parts of the brain dedicated to complex sounds and detailed motor movements are enlarged and show greater activity.  What is more, these changes correlate with hours practice, so the musicians are not born with this phenomena. 

A last example that I'd like to mention concerns 'control' over ones environment.  We know that low-status males can suffer from a range of poor health markers,  but status at work is but one dimension of our lives....  An experiment was conducted in a nursing home were residents on two of four randomly selected floors were given a plant and the opportunity to watch a film once a week.  However, residents on one of those floors (4) were told to water the plants at their discretion and were also free to select which night of the week they watched the film, the other had a fixed movie night and the plant watered for them by staff,
  • "[When researchers returned] to the nursing home after 18 months, they were astounded by the results.  Not only were the fourth-floor residents happier and healthier, twice as many residents on the second floor had died.  Taking control had increased people's longevity."
Getting over pessimism is not about thinking 'happy thoughts', it is about trying to apply a degree of measure to our experiences and reframing that experience with a degree of context.  As Art Devany says, there is no failure, only feedback.  Reclaiming control over your health and fitness is perhaps the most profound thing you can do.

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