Elaine Fox, a research professor in experimental psychology at Oxford University, remembers the day in 2010 when the phone rang and it was someone calling on behalf of Michael J. Fox. The actor (no relation to professor Fox) wanted to speak to her because her research dovetailed with his documentary, Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.
He had read about her interest in certain genes that might predispose a person to optimism and the ability to handle stress. In one study cited by Fox, researchers knew victims of child abuse are more likely to develop serious mental health problems. What interested them was how some children managed to weather serious abuse with no repercussions in later life. What made some children more resilient? The answer, they found, lay in the monoamine oxidase A gene. Abused children born with a “high-expression form” of this gene are better able to cope with ill-treatment, whereas those with a “low-expression form” tend to end up in court for violent and anti-social behaviour.
Similarly, Fox analyzed the high and low expression of the serotonin transporter gene. The results raised the possibility that the high-expression—LL—form of the gene wired people for optimism. Michael J. Fox wondered if he had this gene, which had been dubbed by the media as the “optimist gene.” How else to explain his emotional bounce-back after the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s? He asked the psychologist to fly to New York to test his DNA, a mouth swab procedure he described as “fairly gross.”
Of course, as Elaine Fox explains in her new book, Rainy Brain Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook, “we now know that optimism, just like pessimism, results from an intricate dance of genetics, life experiences and specific biases in how each of us views and interprets the world.”
In fact, Fox argues against the simplistic notion of an optimist gene. The gene is just one piece of the puzzle. As it turned out, Michael J. Fox did not have the LL form. Fox attributes his infinite optimism to a lifelong tendency to look on the bright side. He has entrenched a “sunny” pathway in his brain. “The brain circuits underlying our [pessimistic] brain and our [optimistic] brain are among the most plastic in the human brain,” she writes.
On the phone from London, she explains it this way: “If you imagine water cutting a pathway through sand, the more the water runs down one pathway, the more entrenched the riverbed will become. It’s a little bit like that in the brain. These circuits of chemicals are set up so that the more you zone in on the negative, the more your brain learns to tune in to the negative. The thing is, it’s sand, not stone. It’s not easy, but with effort we can change the way we see things, and that does lead to structural changes in the brain.”
She urges pessimists to reframe their experiences in a positive way. If you run into an old friend who walks past you, don’t assume they dislike you, she advises. “Learn to challenge your belief. Step back and say, ‘Is there any other interpretation? Maybe they didn’t recognize me. I haven’t seen them for a while.’ ”
Fox also points to a new technique pioneered by the psychiatrist who treated Leonardo DiCaprio, who developed obsessive-compulsive disorder after immersing himself among OCD patients for his role as Howard Hughes. The psychiatrist, Jeffrey Schwartz, is a Buddhist who developed a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that includes aspects of meditation, known as mindfulness-based CBT. He trains people not to give into the urge to check the stove but instead to “relabel their symptoms as a sign of a disordered brain circuit and not something worth worrying about,” says Fox.
After 10 weeks of mindfulness-based CBT, brain scans of OCD patients show significant changes to the orbitofrontal cortex. Fox is optimistic pessimists can use the same technique to change their brains. “What I’m talking about is real change, reflected at the level of neurons and their connections deep within our brains. If we can change these connections, we can change ourselves.”