Think you're better than average? Blame your brain

It also doesn't work well in the early stages of recovery from drug abuse. This may explain why addicts don't seek treatment or help, she says. They have an overly positive view of themselves. But the region does return to normal six months to a year after complete abstinence, Dr. Beer says.

The Globe and Mail
March 22, 2010

Think you're better than average? Blame your brain
Researchers are zeroing in on a kiwi-sized region of the frontal lobes as key to offering an internal reality check
Anne McIlroy

Brain.jpg

You may know someone who thinks he is the life of every party, the smartest person in the office or the Sidney Crosby of the local outdoor rink - despite ample evidence to the contrary. Occasionally, you may be seduced by hyperbolic self-assessment of your own skills or abilities.

Blame the brain's orbital-frontal cortex. Researchers are zeroing in on this kiwi-sized region of the frontal lobes as key to offering an internal reality check.

At a conference in Toronto this week, University of Texas researcher Jennifer Beer will report on how the orbital-frontal cortex helps shape self-perception and can play a role in addiction. She and her colleagues are also looking into how it can thin as we get older.

They are examining whether people over 65 may be more likely to see themselves through rose-coloured glasses.

The Frontal Lobes conference, held every 10 years, brings together top scientists from Canada and around the world who study the part of the human brain that make us different from other primates, says co-chair Donald Stuss, a senior scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute.

The frontal lobes, located behind the forehead, are involved in paying attention, storing and retrieving memories, reasoning, problem-solving, thinking creatively using language and understanding humour.

"I like to think of it as a conference about 'humanness,' " says Dr. Stuss, who worked with Robert Knight from the University of California at Berkeley to create a five-day program that covers a decade worth of advances in brain science.

Dr. Beer's research looks at the part of the frontal lobes involved in social comparisons and what is known as the "above-average effect."

When asked, many of us will say we are a better-than-average driver, when we aren't, or that we outperform many of our co-workers when we don't. Some people see themselves as better than average in a wide variety of ways.

In one experiment, Dr. Beer asked 28 volunteers if they were above average on positive traits, like being prompt, cool-headed, mathematical or witty.

She also asked them how they rated themselves on negative characteristics, like being stingy, materialistic, boastful or rigid.

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while he evaluated himself.

Those who saw themselves in the most positive light when asked about 50 traits had significantly less activity in the orbital-frontal cortex while making the self-assessments. Those with a more tempered view of themselves had more activity.

Dr. Beer says it is not that this part of the brain doesn't work, or is damaged, but that some people tend not to call on it as much.

"It is like there is a pencil there, but you decide not to use it," Dr. Beer says.

But sometimes, it does get weakened. Drugs like methamphetamines have been shown to damage the orbital-frontal cortex. It also doesn't work well in the early stages of recovery from drug abuse. This may explain why addicts don't seek treatment or help, she says. They have an overly positive view of themselves.

But the region does return to normal six months to a year after complete abstinence, Dr. Beer says.

Dr. Beer also wants to study what happens to this region of the brain as people age. She has preliminary evidence that people between 65 and 82 have a more positive view of themselves compared to younger people.

"They think really nice things about themselves in an exaggerated manner,"

This can be detrimental when it comes to decisions about health care, she says, but it can also be a good thing.

"It can be positive and motivating."

She will be one of 40 presenters at the conference. A number of them will report on the development of the frontal lobes in children and adolescents and changes that occur during aging.

The frontal lobes are implicated in a number of disorders, including depression, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia.

Researchers will report on new approaches to understanding, diagnosing and treating these illnesses.

Dr. Stuss says many researchers once saw the frontal lobes as the boss of the brain, the conductor that orchestrated other parts.

But that view is shifting, he says. It is now seen as more like part of a chamber orchestra that works with the rest of the brain to integrate thought, behaviour and emotions.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/science/think-youre-better-than-average-blame-your-brain/article1507685/


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