I usually read fiction for pleasure, but I wanted to have a go at this popular science book for a change: Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism. I bought it two years ago after listening to an interview with the author on the Internet.
When I started listening to the podcast, I said to myself “Oh I’m a desperate pessimist and I might as well die tomorrow” but the book doesn’t present the two affective moods as just binaries of course. I allowed myself a bit hope when Elaine Fox talked about the various types of optimism and pessimism, and whatever the outcome, I thought I’d give the book a try because I found the scientifically proven benefits of optimism compelling. For example, I was really impressed by experiments on people’s sense of control over their lives carried out on the residents of a nursing home in the US. (Start listening to the podcast at 04:51.) I never expected reading a book about optimism would make me an optimist (and I am no less pessimist than I was before reading the book) but I hoped it would give me a more in-depth understanding.
And it did. Fox is careful to highlight at the beginning that those self-help books/programmes that propagate a naive brand of “positive thinking” – you know, hoping for the best without taking realistic stock of circumstances – do not lead to any substantial change. It is “positive action” that counts, you could spend hours sitting at home daydreaming, but nothing will happen if you don’t take action. She explains that the true hallmark of optimism is a firm belief that things will eventually work out, even if obstacles and hardships loom in the short or medium term. (Well, I’m not that far off there.) And that encourages persistence. What I also found interesting was that apparently our experiences activate various genes in us. And there are also opportunities for mental training, tested on those suffering from PTSD for example.
The book has its thrilling bits, like:
“For mice, there’s nothing better than discovering a world full of tunnels, toys, and spinning wheels that they can run on as often as they like. It was already known that mice reared in these enhanced environments had larger cortices, mainly as a result of an increased density of synaptic connections in their brains. Just as neuroplasticity research predicts, learning and having fun led to increased connections I the brain.
[Researcher Fred] Gage then divided mice into two groups: one lived for forty-five days in the interesting fun environment, while the other spent forty-five days in comfortable, but rather barren, cages. The results were startling: the mice placed in the enriched environment grew about three time more cells in their hippocampus than did mice left in their normal environment” (137-138).
(I want to volunteer for the human version of this experiment. Live in a funfair for 45 days? That’d feel good…) This section comes from the chapter on neuroplasticity and there are references to many other experiments. The book is rather heavy on the terminology, but it is readable for non-experts obviously.
By the way, listening to the Fox podcast again, I’ve noticed that her voice is strikingly similar to that of Catherine Shoard, the film critic who does the weekly programme on the Guardian with Xan Brooks and Peter Bradshaw. Compare the female voice in the above video with the one here (she starts at 04:28).
The only bit I don’t like in the book is the one that links happiness with success in business life. And I dreaded those experiments involving animals – I hope they aren’t put under too much distress in psychology labs.