Mary Ann Glynn, LCSW: Blame your brain – brain science about optimism

By Mary Ann Glynn, LCSW, located in Bernardsville, New Jersey

I recently wrote about how partners of sociopaths tend to take responsibility when things go wrong in the relationship, figuring ways to make it better. We then blame ourselves for overlooking warning signs early on, and for not leaving immediately when we did see them. Sometimes we blame our childhoods for the vulnerabilities that made us caretakers who overlook and tolerate abusive or rejecting partners.

Neuroscientists tell us that our behaviors are about 90% driven by our subconscious minds. That means 90% of what we are taking in from a person on a conscious level is being received by our subconscious minds, not our conscious thoughts and experience. It takes a lot longer for our conscious minds to catch up and integrate what we are experiencing on an unconscious, visceral, or “gut” level. Hopefully, this information will help you to give yourself a break!

Optimism in the face of reality

But, there is even more compelling evidence that goes beyond naivete, beyond whatever childhood we may have had or type of personality we might have, that explains why we didn’t see the signs, overlooked them, and stayed. I watched a documentary on brain science, which described a recent study done at the University College, London. Dr. Tali Sharot wanted to find out, “Why do we remain optimistic in the face of reality?”

Subjects were put in a brain scanner and asked what they thought the probability of them encountering 80 different negative events in their lives, such as cancer, Alzheimers, car accident, burglary, bone fracture, sport related accident, heart failure, drug abuse, household accident, diabetes, alcoholism, and death before 60. Initially, the subjects responded well below the actual probabilities, for example guessing 18% chance of getting cancer vs. the actual probability, which is 30%.

After these questions, the subjects were shown the actual percentages of the negative events happening and the great gap of their beliefs and reality. Normally, when people are given new information on a subject, it will alter their view or beliefs. After being given the new correct information, the subjects were asked the same questions all over again while in a brain scanner. Instead of the new information altering their beliefs about them encountering the negative events in their lives like should happen, it had little effect!

Negative, positive and the brain

Here is what they found in the brain scans that explains this: The part of the brain that contains negative information malfunctions, while the part that contains positive information is much more active. The brain willfully ignores negative things, and sees the world through rose-colored glasses.

The reason our brains are formed this way and trick us is for survival reasons. 1) It reduces stress and anxiety, and 2) We are goal driven from an evolutionary standpoint, to ignore risks involved in exploring the world and universe and discovering something novel to better our world. It keeps us striving for a better future. Risk takers who less concerned with playing it safe are the ones who are not afraid to venture out, and who keep our species going.

When thought about from the brain science perspective, there is good reason that we ignored the negative, which does not in any way point to a personality or moral flaw. It’s just the way we are.

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And BTW, I had decided to just drop out of the salsa scene rather than dealing with J and all the drama. But I really didn’t want to. Then my teacher emailed me and asked me if I wanted to be his partner in a dance performance – a showcase for students and their teachers! Free private lessons. I couldn’t turn it down. The next day, J called me and started asking me out dancing again. It was very confusing to me. I thought he’d just pulled away. I was honest. I told him I have to limit the time dancing with him because it stirs my feelings up too much. He said “I understand,” and I felt like an idiot. But then we talked again that day and somehow ended up buying tickets together to see one of our favorite bands in concert in June. It will be somewhat of a date, but probably one of our ambiguous dates. Sigh. I like him so much, I have a hard time just cutting him out of my life. But we are on such a different page with dating – I need SO much more from a man. I will just think of him as a gay friend, and hope that if he ever starts dating a woman who’s not me, I’ll be completely over him by then.

It’s really challenging to be in a social situation where you have to look your demons in the face, and you can’t escape from it without throwing out your favorite hobby. Interesting mess I created for myself.

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