Monday, March 29, 2010

Pessimism and the brain’s reward system

When I first went to University, Bertrand Russell came to address us. Among the things he said are two that I have retained and have since always lived by. His first advice was for us to be very selective in what lectures we attend. Lectures, he said, were the relics of medieval times when there were no printing presses. The best way to learn is to spend one’s time in the library, and go to lectures only when we had a fair amount of background information in order to be able to assess critically the lecture and gain a better insight. I have always adhered to this advice, which has served me well, I think. There are of course exceptions. I recall the many brilliant lectures of AJP Taylor, then a lecturer at University College, on history, a subject that I knew little about, or the very polished and witty lectures of Peter Medawar, then Professor of Zoology, among whose memorable lectures was one in which he mauled mercilessly Teilhard de Chardin and his book The Phenomenon of Man, a book which I have not bothered to read.

The second piece of advice was better. You must come to believe, he said, that this is a deeply evil and wicked world, and you must believe this both intellectually and emotionally. Then you will be happy.

I have come to believe this, and it has made me happy, or perhaps happier than I would otherwise be.

I always expect the worse from this evil and wicked world, and am often pleasantly surprised when the worst does not come to pass but never or rarely surprised or upset when it does.

I gather that the dopaminergic system in the reward centres of the brain respond even more vigorously to the expectation of reward than to reward itself. Hence, perhaps, the disappointment.

But when one is expecting a negative reward, as I do, and gets a positive one instead, then do the dopaminergic neurons respond even more vigorously?

I wonder about the physiology of this pessimism that leads to happiness. Whatever it is, this is a piece of advice from a venerable philosopher that I am happy to pass along.


blackwk said...

What year did Bertrand Russell speak at your university, Prof. Zeki? Do you recall the subject of his talk? And was that event at UC London? Thank you.

Professor Zeki said...

He was giving a talk to the freshers, during freshers' week. I do not recall the title of the talk but only remember the advice which I have written about. It was not actually at UCL (which had put on a somewhat boring speaker by comparison) but at the London School of Economics, which is of course part of our University.

TSRI-FL said...


Toward an anatomy of disappointment: reward-related signals from the globus pallidus.

Wickens Neuron 2008