When life gives you lemons, the saying goes, make lemonade. But new research suggests that some brains’ default networks are more adept at creating lemonade than others’. Researchers Siddhant Iyer, Eleanor Collier, Timothy W. Broom, and Meghan L. Meyer found that the brain’s default network helps to explain why some hear bad news and despair while others hear the same information and look on the bright side. “Specifically, homogenous default network responses corresponded with negative reactions, whereas idiosyncratic default network responses corresponded with positive reactions.”
The researchers were looking to answer the following questions: “How, in terms of an underlying cognitive mechanism, are some people able to see the positives of a negative experience? Where in the brain does this mechanism occur? And when during a negative experience does the mechanism come online to generate positivity?”
In order to test predictions about “whether, where in the brain, and when idiosyncratic cognitive processing may generate positivity in response to negative information,” the researchers had subjects undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during different phases: a “patient encoding” phase made up of “four, approximately 4-min videos of cystic fibrosis patients discussing their experience with the disease,” and a “science encoding” phase that was made up of “four, approximately 4-min Khan Academy videos describing the biology of cystic fibrosis.”
Subjects also completed baseline rest scans before the processes and after each phase. Afterwards, subjects were asked to describe each video. The researchers effectively found that there was no great difference in patients’ descriptions (their “affect”) based on how much information they recalled or on whether they were describing the patient encoding or science encoding phase.
The present work generates the prediction that inducing idiosyncratic thinking directly after a negative event may help people walk away with a more optimistic view.– Siddhant Iyer, Eleanor Collier, Timothy W. Broom, and Meghan L. Meyer
They had predicted that “subjects with highly negative descriptions would show similar neural responding while subjects with highly positive descriptions would show idiosyncratic neural responding.” And they did indeed find evidence that idiosyncratic default network connectivity will kick after receiving negative information to create a more positive response. In other words, “subjects with highly negative patient memories show similar default network functional connectivity profiles during post-patient rest, whereas subjects with highly positive memories show idiosyncratic default network functional connectivity patterns during post-patient rest (i.e., their patterns are different from other positive subjects, as well as other negative subjects).”
The researchers describe it as a kind of reverse Anna Karenina: Each person who can make lemonade out of lemons has a brain that’s juicing in its own way. And for those whose brains keep sucking on the lemons: While not without limits (which they also discuss in the study), “The present work generates the prediction that inducing idiosyncratic thinking directly after a negative event may help people walk away with a more optimistic view.”