Outlook

Outlook is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 Outlook refers to how one characteristically views life, typically along an optimism/pessimism dimension. There have already been a host of healthymemory blog posts on optimism (enter “optimism” into the search box). One can be too optimistic, or one can be too pessimistic. However, it is interesting to note that mental health tends toward the optimistic end. People who are clinically depressed tend to be more accurate making predictions where norms exist (for example, life expectation, or the likelihood of suffering from different diseases). This condition is known as depressive realism. Being more optimistic increases the likelihood of persevering and eventually achieving success. Optimism is a “Goldilocks” variable. You can have either too much or too little optimism. Somewhere in the middle is “just right.”

Davidson and his colleagues did a study2 in which the compared the brain activity of two groups: Healthy vs. Clinically Depressed. fMRI was used while they viewed pictures of people doing something joyous or, at least mildly pleasurable (children playing and enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that they were clearly enjoying. When the picture went off, they were asked to try to prolong the emotion (think of themselves in the same situation, imagine that the joy they felt would last and last). Seventy-two such images were projected to each participant over a forty-five minute session.

The brain imaging revealed activity in the reward circuit of the brain. This circuit involves the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum. Both groups showed activation in this reward circuit while the pictures were presented. However, it was only the Healthy participants who were able to maintain this activity once the pictures were turned off. The clinically depressed participants exhibited low activity in the ventral striatum due to decreased input from the prefrontal cortex.

I find these results to be both interesting and useful. It provides added context for interpreting my feelings. When my mood turns pessimistic, I can appreciate that my outlook, even though it might be more accurate, is less adaptive and less likely to lead to future success and happiness. I am also aware that my mood is likely due to decreased input from my prefrontal cortex to my ventral striatum, and if I can increase that input, via either internal or external means, I should become more optimistic.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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