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Taking a Walk on the Bright Side

posted: 1.10.13 by Jack Solomon

So it’s January 1st and I have a Bits Blog deadline approaching.  A perfect time to share my sense of renewal, my resolutions for the future, my desires for AD 2013.  After all, this is one of the primary rituals of the American New Year’s celebration (along with alcohol and football); why not just jump right in and share?

Except that I never formulate New Year’s resolutions.  I never look to a new year as any different from the past year.  I never experience a sense of renewal when the glittering ball drops.  Alcohol and football are never on the program for me.  In short, the rituals of circular time are cultural mythologies that I can analyze and teach, but do not experience or practice.

If you are like most Americans, you will be concluding by now that I am a pessimist—something that is one of the unspoken, but most profoundly condemned, taboos of American culture.  That is why I was so delighted to discover Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and so pleased to be able to publish an excerpt from that book in the “American Paradox” chapter of the seventh edition of Signs of Life in the USA.  For Ehrenreich’s book has the courage to critically explore one of America’s most pervasive mythologies: the belief that everything turns out for the best, that the future is always better than the past, that the American dream is an irrefutable reality.

Your hackles may already be rising as I appear to be embarking on a critique here of that sort of optimism.  But fear not:  cultural semiotics analyzes beliefs; it doesn’t sell any of its own.  And all I mean to do right now is add something to the analysis of American optimism that is not covered in Ehrenreich’s historico-cultural exploration.  That is to say, the role of biology in the formation of an optimistic culture.

I was prompted to this analysis by an article by Tali Sharot in The Washington Post.  In this article, Sharot—a researcher in cognitive and brain science at University College London—explores the biological and evolutionary sources for human optimism.  Among her insights is the fact that the price human beings paid for the ability to imagine future time was the consciousness of inevitable death, and that without some sort of cognitive compensation for that consciousness human life would not be endurable.

What that compensation is appears to lie in an asymmetry in our brains, according to Sharot.  On the one hand, we have the left inferior frontal gyrus, which tends to respond to good news very actively.  On the other hand, we have the right inferior frontal gyrus, which seems to specialize in processing bad news; but, as Sharot notes, it doesn’t “do a very good job” at this.  What it all boils down to is that our brains eagerly latch onto good news and incorporate it into our memories and imagination, while bad news seems to slip out of our cognitive radar.  In other words, as a pessimist might put it, most human beings are hard wired into denial.

This capacity for denial is very good for enhancing one’s potential to contribute to the gene pool; hence, it has been selected for over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.  And if we look at just a few centuries of American cultural evolution we can see how Sharot’s biological analysis can help us understand a social phenomenon.

Consider, then, that modern American society is indeed a culture of immigrants (the annihilation of the first peoples has effectively muted, if not destroyed, their contribution).  Most (not all: African slaves, of course, were not voluntary immigrants) of these immigrants indeed undertook the risk of coming to America in the optimistic belief that things would be better in one way or another if they did.  Now, consider some four centuries of concentrating such optimists in the same place and you see how not only the gene pool but the culture itself will be heavily tilted towards bright-sidedness.

Of course, evolution is never total, and neither is culture.  Some of us seem to have a more active right inferior frontal gyrus than others.  We’re in the minority and are certain to remain that way because we are less likely to have children.

And no, I don’t.

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