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Apr 20

Is it not just the most humans see the glass as half full but most organisms?

Due to the few posts I have done recently on optimists (optimism is good for your health, is the glass half full or half empty: optimism and rACC activation) I couldn’t pass up the following story that was sent my way by a friend.

Eternal Optimist:

Science magazine mentions a new study comparing C elegans in good conditions or unfavorable environmental conditions (no food). This is how they described it:

The nematode appears to behave like an optimist: When conditions are favorable, it responds rapidly, but when conditions become unfavorable, the worm is slower to respond. During starvation, larvae are developmentally arrested and RNA polymerase II accumulates on the promoters of growth and development genes. This accumulation anticipates recovery from developmental arrest when these genes are rapidly up-regulated in response to feeding.

What they are saying is the at least C. elegans assume things are going to be good in the future (optimists) - they have hope - and hence they don’t respond quickly to starvation at a gene response level. Why should they alter their gene response because things are of course going to get better (or at least this is what they are betting on). On the other hand the organism is very quick to change its gene response to good conditions - food. Soon as they get access to food they act like things will never get tough again - time of plenty.

The paper they are referring to was recently published in Science by Baugh et al., 2009.

The expression profile of larvae fed for 12 hours and then starved for 3 hours
resembled larvae fed for 15 hours rather than those starved for 3 hours. Conversely, the expression profile of larvae starved for 12 hours and then fed for 3 hours did not resemble larvae starved for 15 hours but rather larvae fed for 3 hours.

(side note: if negative food supply continues long enough some organisms go into a preventive/survival mode in which reproduction is shut down and energy use is dramatically reduced)

The bigger question is do other organism show this same optimistic tendency, do humans? Previous research indicates the as a whole humans are quite optimistic (Schacter and Addis, Nature Neuroscience, 2007).

Most of us tend to be optimistic, which is a good thing because optimism is
associated with many benefits to both physical and mental health; optimists tend to be well adjusted psychologically and are equipped to handle stress well.

Okay, it appears that humans are a fairly optimistic species, which is very similar to the C. elegans (see also is the glass half full or half empty: optimism and rACC activation). However, there could be cost to pay from being overly optimistic:

If you are overly optimistic about the future then maybe you would not take appropriate safety measures (such as in our ancient ancestor’s time having a cache of food, or in our current world money saved up). One could argue a large contributor to our current financial crisis is the vast majority of individuals in the developed world were too optimistic about the future (they drank – overdosed on - the koolaid). They wore the rose tinted (or should I say the green tinted) glasses that colored their view of the world, of the future and they did not see the reality of the situation. Hence, took on overly optimistic debt load (personal level) or overly leveraged their position (banking/financial sector).

And could all of the over optimism be somewhat related to how much food you consume, or how much calorie supply you have stored in your body? The feeding and fasting response of C. elegans seems to be an ancient evolutionary ‘built’ in optimism at the genetic level. What happens if you live in a time of over abundance of food? Do you become overly optimistic and not able to respond to changing environmental and economic conditions? Is there a fundamental link between food and money?

From my piece on why a fed brain might influence economic choice, in which I quote Briers et al., 2006 (Hungry for money: the desire for caloric resources increases the desire for financial resources and vice versa).

Money is viewed as a means to obtain biologically relevant incentives (food), and food is viewed as a means of preventing the body’s energy resources from falling below an energy set point… Finally, the symmetric association between food and money may help explain why poor people are especially vulnerable to overeating and have ill health as a result. In industrialized countries such as the United States (Drewnowski & Specter, 2004), as well as in developing countries (James, 2004), obesity is usually associated with poverty. Perhaps in present-day societies, the attraction to money is so powerful that people who, relatively speaking, fail in their quest for (more) money become frustrated. Accordingly, as financial and caloric resources are exchangeable, they might tend to appease their desire for money by consuming more calories than is healthy.

The optimistic program might be great in the normal environment with plenty of feast and famine - and the only measurement of species success is at least producing new offspring that might benefit when better conditions return. But what happens in the time of ‘un-normal’ abundance? What happens when more than 50% of the population become overweight or obese? You might want to read about the possible link between the rise of obesity and the rise of debt.

However, if this built in genetic optimism survived untold millions of years of selection there is probably a pretty good reason. This built in optimistic genetic program must work under most conditions for various organisms. But I wonder if other creatures like the squirrel which in the summer and fall are storing away for the winter - do they have a different program?

I don’t know the answers but at least this gives us plenty of food for thought. The economics, and the neuroeconomics of food, money and optimism.

- thanks again to my friend for tipping me off to this article.

(see also: the neuroscience of hope)

2 Responses

  1. Tycoonism “Live as if your were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. « Mr. Tycoon | The Wealth Architect Says:

    [...] Are organisms by nature optimists? (brainhealthhacks.com) [...]

  2. Nomi Says:

    I haven’t read the James study (2004) relating obesity with poverty. It may certainly be true in some cultures/societies - but clearly is not universal as shown by images of those impoverished in various other countries in the world. Wouldn’t another premise be to relate obesity to poverty in our society as education and corporate/maketing pressures impacting those people who are not as free to make smarter choices?

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