This Is Your Brain on Hope

Feeling hopeful is critical for what lies ahead

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
3 min readNov 10, 2020

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Photo: RelaxFoto.de/Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Over the weekend, America got a new president, one who has committed himself to science. True to his word, President-elect Joe Biden named his coronavirus advisory board, a diverse group of doctors and scientists with expertise in infectious diseases, public health, epidemiology, and vaccines.

Speaking of vaccines, yesterday Pfizer announced astounding preliminary results from its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial. The report comes from a press release, so take it with a hefty grain of salt, but the drug company says that its vaccine is more than 90% effective at preventing Covid-19. A lot more information is needed (How many people who got the vaccine still became asymptomatically infected? What do we know about potential long-term side effects? How long does the protection last?), but it’s hard not to feel optimistic at the news.

I know, I know, this is a newsletter about the brain, not about the coronavirus (you can sign up for that one here), but having been immersed in Covid-19 coverage for the last nine months — not to mention living through the year 2020 — the news from the past few days has given me a funny feeling, one I haven’t had for a while: hope.

In the brain, people experience optimism about the future in two key areas: the amygdala, our emotion processing center, and part of a region called the anterior cingulate cortex that is involved in thinking about the self, reflecting on the past, and anticipating the future, particularly with an emotional lens.

The opposite of hope is often thought to be depression, and interestingly, both of the brain areas activated during feelings of optimism are malfunctioning in people with depression.

But hope is more than just having a sunny outlook for the future. According to the psychologist Charles Snyder, who pioneered much of the research on the topic, real hope requires three components: goals, agency, and pathways. It’s not enough to…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental