Although Saturday Night Live may be in the midst of a prolonged rough stretch, Debbie Downer is one of my all-time favorite characters (see a video or the Wikipedia entry). For those who are unfamiliar, the central figure in these sketches is a miserable cynic who constantly rains pessimism on others’ parades. A recent study, published in NeuroImage, examines if this type of behavior has neural underpinnings:
Based on the assumption that information processing is biased towards potentially negative events in order to prepare response strategies efficiently for coping with unfavorable consequences, we hypothesized that emotion processing brain areas are activated during ‘unknown’ expectation which are also activated during expectation of negative events.
Taken together, we found evidence for a ‘medial-thalmic-insular-inferior-frontal-rubral’ circuit associated with expecting events of unknown emotional valence, the activity of which resembled the expectation of negative events and also correlated with individual depressiveness. The revealed areas are consistent with the proposed ‘ventral system’ of emotion processing for identification of the emotional significance of a stimulus, production of affective state, and autonomic response regulation…Our results are consistent with the view of brain activity reflecting a ‘pessimistic’ or ‘cautious’ bias toward future events.
Apparently, we’re all wired to be downers in a world characterized
by pervasive ambiguity. Somewhere in the
course of human evolution, though, people’s views toward their pessimistic peers
have changed – whereas downers of the distant past likely served to possess and
distribute valuable information, they’re a drag in 21st-century