We're Just a Bunch of Cheerful, Defective Idiots

In what takes the prize for this week’s most entertaining Nature Neuro paper, scientists have finally discovered what makes your insufferably perky neighbor/officemate/family member so goddamn cheerful all the time. It’s a certain blob of neurons in the front of your head called the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). In the optimists of the world, this little area fails very miserably to learn from an unpleasant reality, and Boston, I’m sorry, but if the sports teams we root for and the politicians we elect are any indication, we’re a city full of cerebrally-defective hopefuls.

To put this in context, the meat and potatoes are as follows: the human ability to blindly ignore facts and overestimate the good things in life has been well documented for more than 30 years now. It’s one of those things, kind of like gravity, that everyone’s known was there, but not really how or why. No big deal, until you realize that kind of optimism is also the driving rationale behind smoking, unsafe sex, texting while driving, riding without helmets, sub-prime mortgage investing, and every other stupid thing you cheerfully do because don’t worry — lung cancer/gonorrhea/death by horrible car accident/housing bubble collapse won’t happen to you.

The researchers behind the paper here — from the UK-based Wellcome Trust and Freie Universität Berlin — wanted to know how and where this is happening neurologically. So they gathered up 19 student subjects, sat them down in an fMRI and asked them what they thought the odds were that they would succumb to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, etc., later in life. Then, and this is my favorite part, they gave them the cold, hard facts about the true average rates for people in their sociodemographic.

Learning areas all over the subjects’ brains lit up, but in the perennial optimists (a stunningly large 79 percent of the subject pool), when the average odds were unpleasantly higher than they’d estimated, IGF activity dropped. And that diminishment in brain activity tied in very nicely with a general failure, upon re-questioning, to have learned anything from the facts. They were lying through their teeth at themselves, and buying it hook, line, and sinker.

And this wasn’t even a matter of recall — the scientists, admirably thorough throughout the paper, checked and found that everyone remembered the stats just fine. They were all just quite happily sure that the numbers wouldn’t apply to them and their brains simply and stubbornly would not learn otherwise.

So there you have it: the logic-proof idiot circuit of the brain has been found, and it’s in the front right side of your head. Give yourself a smack there next time you decide it won’t hurt to whip out the phone while you cruise down I-90 at 70 mph. The odds do actually apply to you. You just don’t believe it.