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Surprising Science

Why We Tend to Look on the Bright Side

A clever experiment designed by Harvard researchers suggests that we mostly imagine, and recall, positive visions of the future. Though negative forecasts occasionally help us correct our course. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Most of us imagine a rosy future most of the time, but only recently did scientists devise a way to test how we “remember the future.” By first encouraging individuals to create visions of the future, then asking them to recall those visions, cognitive scientists at Harvard University determined that we prefer to remember our rosier predictions. Everyone imagines how their life might play out, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But our negative visions of the future quickly lose their potency, crumbling apart in our brain’s memory center, which curiously is activated whether we are thinking of past or future events. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The researchers’ findings are consistent with how we recall past events, i.e. we are more likely to recall what was as having been pleasant rather than an experience filled with dread and longing. Besides being good for our mental health–people suffering from depression and other mood disorders remember the past negatively as well as spin gloomy scenarios for the future–the fact that most of us are unduly optimistic about what lies ahead is probably adaptive. Imagining the worst from time to time helps us to avoid what bad things we can, but letting those thoughts quickly fade lets us get on our way.

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