Optimistic thinking could change areas of the brain related to anxiety, a new study finds.
The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is an area of the brain important in anxiety and optimism.
Now researchers have found that people who are more optimistic have larger OFCs.
The neuroscientists were inspired by studies that suggested a smaller OFC was linked to anxiety.
Dr Sanda Dolcos, who led the research, said:
“We wanted to go in the opposite direction.
If there can be shrinkage of the orbitofrontal cortex and that shrinkage is associated with anxiety disorders, what does it mean in healthy populations that have larger OFCs?
Could that have a protective role?”
Brain scans of 61 people identified the size of the OFC and levels of optimism, anxiety, depression and emotional states.
The results suggested that it’s optimism that links OFC size with anxiety.
Dr Dolcos said:
“You can say, ‘OK, there is a relationship between the orbitofrontal cortex and anxiety. What do I do to reduce anxiety?’
And our model is saying, this is working partially through optimism.
So optimism is one of the factors that can be targeted.”
Ms Yifan Hu, one of the study’s authors, said:
“Optimism has been investigated in social psychology for years.
But somehow only recently did we start to look at functional and structural associations of this trait in the brain.
We wanted to know: If we are consistently optimistic about life, would that leave a mark in the brain?”
Professor Florin Dolcos added:
“If you can train people’s responses, the theory is that over longer periods, their ability to control their responses on a moment-by-moment basis will eventually be embedded in their brain structure.”
The research was published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Dolcos et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Brain image from Shutterstock