Our Doubts are Traitors

Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win     
By fearing to attempt”
William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure”

Are we wired to be self-defeatist? An article I recently read in February 5, 2007 issue of Neuroeconomics addressed the topic of ambiguity and pessimism. Apparently when dealing with expectations of the unknown there is a propensity to be negative. This reminds me of a bit of advice my father gave me to, “always expect the worst, that way you are never disappointed and will be prepared.” I could not find the logic in his suggestion however. How could one have motivation to do anything if we always expected a negative outcome? How “prepared” could one possibly be for all potential detrimental possibilities? Alternatively, there is also the idea that “we get what we expect”; that we tend to create situations that justify our positive or negative expectations (like a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Here is an excerpt from the article:
“A recent study, published in NeuroImage, examines if this type of behavior has neural underpinnings:
Based on the assumption that information processing is biased towards potentially negative events in order to prepare response strategies efficiently for coping with unfavorable consequences, we hypothesized that emotion processing brain areas are activated during ‘unknown’ expectation which are also activated during expectation of negative events.

And here is the authors’ main result:
Taken together, we found evidence for a ‘medial-thalmic-insular-inferior-frontal-rubral’ circuit associated with expecting events of unknown emotional valence, the activity of which resembled the expectation of negative events and also correlated with individual depressiveness. The revealed areas are consistent with the proposed ‘ventral system’ of emotion processing for identification of the emotional significance of a stimulus, production of affective state, and autonomic response regulation…Our results are consistent with the view of brain activity reflecting a ‘pessimistic’ or ‘cautious’ bias toward future events.

This tendency makes some sense for survival, and yet this inclination to perhaps skew ambiguous information pessimistically interferes with an accurate assessment of reality. And it makes me wonder, “How much could we do or be if we didn’t have these innate negative predispositions?” Could this be the reason for so much apathy in the world? It seems all to common to me today that people complain and lament the state of the world or their personal affairs without seeking constructive solutions. Doesn’t that amount to glorifying or romanticizing despair as somehow profound? We can all be pessimistic and complain occasionally, but shouldn’t we look for solutions? Doubt has its function. I do not advocate impulsive naivety; it’s just that “doubt is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom.” It seems that cynicism is just disappointed idealism. Disappointment can break your heart, it is true, and yet to respond by making general negative assumptions is to overlook the variety in life out of cowardice and mental laziness. Life is not set out in black and white, and it takes discrimination to respond to the various shades of gray. To paint perceptions bleakly is fear in the disguise of wisdom.

Vital in all of this is to realize that we do not know and catch ourselves when we make assumptions. A book I read awhile ago about harmonizing both hemispheres of the brain stated that a mark of higher intelligence is “being comfortable with ambiguity.” Yes, one should “look before they leap” or they may end up dire predicament, and yet “those whose hesitate are lost.” Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to consider positive AND negative possibilities when confronting uncertain stimuli?…or simply admit what we do not know? Perhaps this is more evidence that change is innately scary for our brains and we are creatures of habit. Even if we are wired to be cautious and/or pessimistic when expecting the unknown, we can learn to think in new ways and even train our brains to be “rewired”. Studies in neuropsychology (particularly using biofeedback techniques) have demonstrated this fact; that when we proactively decide how and what to think it changes underlying chemical activations in the brain.

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
William Shakespeare

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