Monday, 11 February 2013

Sunny brain, rainy brain

Elaine Fox made a presentation to Oxford Skeptics in the Pub last week, in a meeting attended by an unusually large number of people.  The theme of the talk was about whether optimism is good for us.

She began by reminding us that everyone is different.  Quoting William James, she said that every baby born into the world is inundated by "the blooming buzzing confusion of sounds", and it is remarkable how quickly they are able to focus on the ones that matter and ignore the sounds and sights that form the background to life.

She went on to tell us that some things are hard-wired into us, and that fear and pleasure play a large role in the workings of our brains.  In most people, fear takes priority over pleasure and she described the signal route from the amygdala to the pre-frontal cortex - the desire to eat lunch is over-ridden by the desire to avoid being lunch.  (I didn't know that we do not have one amygdala but two.)

In order to convince us that most people have an optimistic approach to life (which seems counter-intuitive to all of us, let alone a room full of skeptics) she read a few statements out and asked us to score our level of agreement.  See below**.  The room displayed a wide range of scores, but she was successful in demonstrating what she wanted. (This was not necessarily done in a completely scientific manner.  How were those statements chosen, and what do they actually mean in detail?)

Optimism is a complex combination of states.  It is not just a matter of happily expecting the best outcomes, but people who score high on optimism scales also take positive actions and persist longer to solve difficult problems.

She also pointed out another (perhaps obvious) point that our outlooks are not shaped by nature or nurture, but by the interaction between both.  The brain remains much more malleable throughout life than was understood only a few years ago.  As an example, she described how London taxi drivers who were studying for a test called 'The Knowledge' had been shown to have experienced a growth in the size of their hippocampus. 

Studies of different gene variants have shown correlation with subtle effects on brain chemistry.  Perhaps there is good science behind these claims.  We didn't really hear enough to be able to tell, and in some ways this was a pity, because it further confirms our bias that the science of the brain is still in its infancy.  Only be the highest standard of scientific method will that change quickly. 

The final topic was about therapeutic effects of cognitive bias modification.  She claimed that various studies showed health benefits from an optimistic bent.  Let's hope that this turns out to be true.  I have a strong feeling that I have heard opposite claims from other researchers, but that is not necessarily a threat to the advance of science.

All in all, it was an interesting evening in spite of a the projector being unable to display in colour.  Obviously it must have been the projector, not the Apple Mac that was being used for the presentation as nothing ever goes wrong with a Mac does it?  Ironic comments aside, the venue was a place that has recently been renamed "The Wig and Pen".  There are rumours that it wants to start to charge for use of the room as well as gaining the benefit of bringing 50 or 100 customers in.  All I can say to that is that they would need to improve the quality of the room.  A bar with one member of staff does not cope with the number of customers.  And one might expect that the toilets would have been cleaned, and that the taps on the sinks in the gents toilets (at least) might open in a more controlled and less explosive way.  I would vote to change venue.

Thanks as usual to the organisers, Heather and Alex.

**Small note
My transcription of the 6 statements:
1/ In uncertain times I usually expect the best.
2/ I enjoy my friends a lot.
3/ I would take off on a trip with no pre-plans.
4/ I don't get upset too easily.
5/ I get restless when I spend too much time at home.
6/ I count on good things happening to me.

Decide for yourselves whether these all reflect aspects of optimism.  Not everyone understands what they mean and how much we are expected to consider the implications.  Not everyone agrees that they reflect optimism as opposed to some other quantity - but then again none of the people I have asked are experts on the topic.  However, I was VERY pleased to score slightly higher than one of my friends who I consider to be highly optimistic, albeit much lower than another.

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