Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This is your brain during the apocalypse

Given the rather apocalyptic bent of the last two posts, it was kind of a curious coincidence that a student of mine sent me a link to a study that was published last week in the journal Nature - Neuroscience.  The gist seems to be that our brains are just not wired to expect, and therefore prepare for, calamities.

The study, done by a group of German and British scientists, created descriptions of a series of eighty pleasant to unpleasant events, of varying likelihood -- contracting a fatal disease, getting a better job, being mugged, winning the lottery, having one's house burn down, finding a $20 bill on the street, getting in a car accident.  The subjects were asked to estimate the likelihood of each of these events happening to them.  Afterwards, the researchers told the subjects the actual probabilities -- and, not surprisingly, the subjects had overestimated some risks, and underestimated others.

Where it got interesting was that the researchers resurveyed the subjects after some time had passed, and found that they were able to adjust their perceptions of probability -- but only for the favorable outcomes and the unfavorable ones that they'd overestimated.  Their perception of their risk for the unfavorable outcomes they'd underestimated remained too low, as if they couldn't quite bring themselves to believe that a bad outcome was more likely than they'd thought.

Further, they did fMRIs on the subjects while they were taking the surveys, and found that when they considered future calamities, a part of the frontal cortex would activate, a part of the brain that seems to act as a shield to keep us from dwelling on negative emotions.  In the words of the researchers:
We found that optimism was related to diminished coding of undesirable information about the future in a region of the frontal cortex (right IFG) that has been identified as being sensitive to negative estimation errors . . . this human propensity toward optimism is facilitated by the brain's failure to code errors in estimation when those call for pessimistic updates. This failure results in selective updating, which supports unrealistic optimism that is resistant to change.
This is a fascinating result.  I wonder, though, how this explains the uncommon, but uncommonly loud, ones amongst us who are doomsayers.  We have religious apocalyptics like Ronald Weinland, who seem to drool over the prospects of nuclear war, the fall of the American government, and the Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers.  Then, we have our small-scale pessimists, who relish the prognostication of doom from a variety of causes, from ecological catastrophe to economic collapse, from asteroid collisions to massive, Contagion-style plagues.

Do these folks just have a less active right IFG?  Or are they the true realists, and the rest of us Pollyannas?  In my Environmental Science class, I warn fairly consistently against a blithely optimistic, "Oh, We'll Fix Things Somehow, We Always Do" approach to ecological problems.  But my own approach tends to optimism, as well; I always end my Environmental Science course, in the last lecture of the year, by saying, "We've talked about a lot of negative, worrisome stuff in this class, but if I was a pessimist, I wouldn't be a teacher.  Go out and change the world."

I've always liked to think that I approach life rationally, and that my opinions and attitudes are largely based upon reason, evidence, and logic.  But given the results of the study in Nature - Neuroscience, I'm left wondering if my generally bouncy, upbeat attitude is a brain-wiring phenomenon, and therefore not reflective of the way the world actually is.

Ye gods, that's a depressing thought.  Maybe I shouldn't think about this any more.  I mean, it's not like my perceptions could be that far wrong, right?

Of course right.


  1. I've noticed that people who delight in predicting the apocalypse, don't expect it to occur to them. They and their followers will be saved. They are really optimists with a rosy vision of all the annoying skeptics being bombed into oblivion, eaten by carnivorous weevils, or whatever.

  2. Oooh. Carnivorous weevils. That sounds like a bad way to go.

  3. Yes. If you're going to be eaten let it be by something that takes big bites. If you get a choice.