Brain Activity Levels Affect Self-Perception, Research Shows; “Rose-Colored Glasses” Correlate with Less Frontal Lobe Use

Jan. 6, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — The less you use your brain's frontal lobes, the more you see yourself through rose-colored glasses, a University of Texas at Austin researcher says.

Those findings are being published in the February edition of the journal NeuroImage.

"In healthy people, the more you activate a portion of your frontal lobes, the more accurate your view of yourself is," says Jennifer Beer, an assistant professor of psychology, who conducted the research with graduate student Brent L. Hughes. "And the more you view yourself as desirable or better than your peers, the less you use those lobes."

The natural human tendency to see oneself in a positive light can be helpful and motivating in some situations but detrimental in others, Beer says.

Her research, conducted at the university's Imaging Research Center, gives new insight into the relationship among brain functions and human emotion and perceptions.

It may help scientists better understand brain functions in seniors or people who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. It could also have implications for recovering methamphetamine addicts whose frontal lobes are often damaged by drug use and who can overestimate their ability to stay clean.

As part of the study, 20 subjects answered questions about how they compared to their peers on such positive traits as tact, modesty, likability and maturity and such negative traits as materialism, messiness, unreliability and narrow-mindedness. As the subjects answered those questions, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine scanned their brains.

The subjects who viewed themselves in a very positive light across those disparate areas used their orbitofrontal cortex less than the other subjects. This region of the frontal lobe is generally associated with reasoning, planning, decision-making and problem-solving

Some subjects who had accurate views of themselves showed four times more frontal lobe activation than the most extreme "rose-colored glasses" wearer in the study.

Among a separate set of subjects who were asked the same questions, those who were required to answer quickly saw themselves in a far more positive light than those who had unlimited time to answer. Those findings suggest that processing information in a more deliberate manner may be the way in which frontal lobe activation permits people to come to more realistic conclusions.

"Subjects made unrealistically positive judgments about themselves more quickly, suggesting these judgments require fewer mental resources," Beer says. "Perhaps, like the visual system, the social judgment system is designed to give us a quick 'good enough' perception for the sake of efficiency."

Beer is a leader in the emerging field of social neuroscience, which studies people's emotions, how they think about themselves and what's going on in the brain when they do.

For more information, contact: Gary Susswein, Office of the President, 512-471-4945; Jennifer Beer, 512-471-3224.

14 Comments to "Brain Activity Levels Affect Self-Perception, Research Shows; “Rose-Colored Glasses” Correlate with Less Frontal Lobe Use"

1.  Laura said on Jan. 13, 2010

I would love to be a part of this study. I'd also like to learn more about if there would be any way to find out about a person's brain without hooking them up to a machine. I am a manager and have hiring in mind when I say this. Also, maybe predicting how my children will turn out. I wonder if there could be any telltale characteristics in the way a person looks/talks/moves/etc. Is there any type of control in place? For example, maybe people think highly of themselves, but it's because they truly are better than their peers. They may appear to have on "rose-colored glasses," but they really are being objective.

Is there any way to change a person's view to make them be more realistic and not wear the glasses, or perhaps get someone out of a depression by making the frontal lobe be more active?

2.  MB said on Jan. 14, 2010

"Here, . . .
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow /
And leaden-eyed despairs."

"Ode to a Nightingale," 1819

3.  Carl Langner said on Jan. 15, 2010

A most interesting study! I do wonder if those who had to elevate their frontal brain activity to more reasonably describe themselves weren't really just trying to plan a way to not have to. For example, when confronted with a problem or negative perception they are forced to think about how they're going to fix it. This is most interesting, right up my alley.

The question of how self evaluation is carried out is a hard one to answer, though arrogance, or just a general lack of desire to evaluate the self is often viewed as an indicator of poor character, bad attitude. It is also true that being comfortable with yourself as is (and also your environment/peers I might add) is a key to productivity, stepping over the drawn out planning phases you proceed to begin action.

Quite literally you want your brain to be nice and warmed up when you act, but not well done or burnt to a crisp. A very touchy subject as well, people's habits being their own business. A good deal of decorum is often required to not blow the lid off the mysterious nature of life that keeps it perpetually interesting (to me at least) (as if something said could really change the mystery for long, but honestly there is such a thing as a downer, party pooper, etc.)

In conclusion I'd advise, prepare for the present not the future, or you'll always be two steps behind at the least. Train the body, mind and the spirit you project outwardly and perhaps you will coast along with minimal frontal lobe expenditure for as long as you choose.

As for vanity, it's just the other side, where as opposed to being far from the (who decides this stuff anyway) ideal, you are very close, and yet you can't cross that gap for some reason or another. This would correlate with less activity in the decision planning realm, you can easily visualize a few things you need to do to be fully perfect. But sadly you fail your own tests so it seems, otherwise your brain scan would basically be unaffected by having to describe your qualities. You would simply be relating the truth and if you happened to be planning something else like a picnic at the time you might have high activity, if you were at rest you would have low activity.

By the way I have the glasses on. Bad in case you couldn't tell, I'm a prideful man, but I do desire to be helpful to my brothers and sisters. It's a saving grace I hope. *goes and dunks head in ice water* *goes and finds picnic basket*

Anyway, study hard, kids, good luck and best wishes. Try to remind yourself there's a whole lot to life.

4.  Erika said on Jan. 15, 2010

Ms. Beer, I am very interested in the field of social neuroscience and this study you have been conducting. If you need any help, I would love to be a part of what you are working on.

5.  Mystery Man said on Jan. 15, 2010

Perhaps to think of yourself as better than someone else is detrimental in itself. It seems that being humble about your own accomplishments, in which you assess yourself and the situations of others, will use your frontal lobe more than praising yourself, even if you are objectively at an advantage.

6.  Jason Shear said on Jan. 18, 2010

Of course, the other possibility is that "positive" personality traits do in fact correlate with less active frontal lobes. What evidence pointed to the conclusion that subjects maintained "unrealistically" positive self images?

7.  Anke said on Jan. 19, 2010

Interesting article, thanks.

It would be interesting to see an expanded study on the perception of eating disordered (ED) patients (especially in terms of their body image distortion). I'm not a researcher in this field, but it seems of great interest to see what influences this may also have on body image perception in general, as well as depression and self-pity/guilt, etc. in many of those ED cases.

8.  Jeff said on Jan. 21, 2010

In other words, if you are generous and have a sense of positive wellbeing, you are stupid.

9.  Denise said on Jan. 21, 2010

OK, if you have an elevated self-esteem, then generally you are not depressed. So I am confused. Most depressed people are as far as possible away from being described as wearing "rose-colored glasses." Does this also mean that a person who sees the glass as half full versus half empty is not using that part of their brain? Seriously...wondering about that.

10.  Navid said on Jan. 22, 2010

Are these findings suggesting that an accurate self-opinion is equivalent to not elevating yourself above others?

11.  Rosa Trevino-Boiko said on Jan. 25, 2010

Very interesting findings. If you decide to do another similar study, I'd like to participate.

12.  Jennie said on Jan. 26, 2010

So how can one increase the usage of his/her frontal lobes?

13.  Beau said on Jan. 27, 2010

What qualifies a self-perception as accurate? If I find myself to be attractive, and I am perceived as unattractive by some and attractive by others, what is the standard of measurement? Does the activity of the frontal lobe suggest a level of intelligence, or is it reflective of cognizance?

14.  Joe said on Feb. 26, 2010

"It could also have implications for recovering methamphetamine addicts whose frontal lobes are often damaged by drug use and who can overestimate their ability to stay clean." Being a substance abuse counselor, could you explain this in greater detail? Is this limited to methamphetamine?