Dissecting the Anatomy of Hope

Hope is malleable, perhaps measurable, and science believes that is the most predictive indicator of a person’s well-being.

Amidst the steady stream of worrisome news, there is a new science emerging — the science of hope, one that is helping people to cope. The current pandemic is unlike anything we have ever seen. With the virus spreading almost to every continent, continuing to infect many, and swelling up the death toll, every day brings a piece of news that is worse than the day before. Yet among these tragedies, several research communities, health professionals, and government agencies keep chanting about hope. Ask what it is we can do to defeat the virus, they say build immunity, but even more, build a healthy mind. A strong, resilient mindset, governed by optimism and reinforced by hope, can help stay level-headed during any crises. This perhaps means hope and optimism should work hand-in-hand, despite the difference in their very nature.

Hope, unlike optimism, is rooted in reality. The prevailing attitude that “things will turn out for the best” is the sheer nature of optimism. Hope, in contrast, does not arise from being told to act positively. It is an elevated feeling that we experience in our minds for a better future. Not only hope acknowledges significant obstacles, but also carves its way out along that path. It is not delusional, rather realistic.

When considered philosophically, hope often seems to be at odds with rational and analytical thinking. But because of its proactive nature, it creates room for its own validation. In 1991, psychologist Charles R. Snyder came up with the Hope Theory, which argues that Agency and Pathways are the key drivers of hope. Pathways Thinking is the ability to generate different routes for the desired future, and Agency Thinking is the level of intention harboured to follow that pathway. Put simply, hope requires the ability to generate different routes to achieve a goal and the intention to follow those routes.

This is a cyclic relationship so to speak, Agency thinking leading to more Pathways, and Pathways leading to higher levels of Agency — building confidence and commitment to achieve the desired goal. This theory may just be one of the psychological approaches, but has its connection at the scientific level.

How?

From a neuroscience perspective, hope is a complex emotion–one that originates in the right side of the brain (responsible for cognitive functions, like emotions) but supported by the left side (responsible for logic). Both the sides of the brain work simultaneously towards the flight or freeze system to move into a calm space through the means of parasympathetic rest and digest system. Yes, it is all interconnected!

Hope is determined as one of the most important positive psychological constructs. It is a thought, and just like every other thought, a neurochemical response in the brain. Every thought, therefore, triggers or alters the brain’s neurochemistry. Although no study has ever directly investigated the neurobiological underpinnings of hope, many prior studies, however, show that hope may live in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). PFC is considered as a core region of the brain, responsible for problem-solving, motivation initiation, and regulation of goal-oriented thoughts and behaviours — all the functions that are an indispensable component of hope. Because this personality trait varies among individuals, the neural basis of hope could be implicated in the overall brain function and structure.

A 2017 study (that involved researchers from Sichuan University, China) revealed that the presence of the hope trait was dominant in the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the PFC that sits just above the orbits, also known as the eye sockets. Scientists simply discovered that the hope trait worked as a “mediator” to shield our brain from negativity. This study provided the first evidence for functional brain substrates underlying the hope trait and revealed a potential mechanism.

The reason why the neurobiology of hope fails to produce any concrete result is that there has been no accessible method so far to measure the neurochemical process of hope. What follows is the intervention between various psychological stimuli and observation of its related physiological reaction. Simply speaking, scientists are looking objectively into what is going on in the central nervous system when exposed to stressful, self-affirmative, or self-supportive stimuli. It is these changes that impact the physiological function of the body.

So why does it matter?

When somebody during a conversation or a diagnosis points out your limitations, you create an identity that is wrapped up in the things you cannot do, and your brain potentially aligns and reinforces itself. When you choose to stick to this identity that you are incapable or that something will never work out because that is how you are told so, you are putting yourself into a self-induced box of limitations, zeroing the chance of producing unlikable change. As the possibility is questioned, the Pathways Thinking gets restricted, creating a ripple effect for the Agency Thinking.

What it means is that despite knowing and acknowledging the current situation, stop saying “It is finished”, and start a dialogue to initiate change. Perhaps not from the esoteric or ideal perspective, but from the literal, mental, and physical space that is a part of the brain’s function. Appreciate that you are wonderfully made and capable of real change in real-time. This does not mean that everything one is encountering will change today or tomorrow, but it sure may in near future. The idea of functional neurology works best when one is not put in a fixed or restricted space but is open to the idea of the possibility of change. Hope brings this possibility, and when mustered, brings a better and brighter future!

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