I was watching an interesting programme on NHK World, the English-language Japanese TV channel, the other day. Despite being on a Japanese channel, it was actually a recording of a lecture given at Oxford University, right here in the the UK.
The psychologist giving the lecture, Professor Elaine Fox, explained that people tend to have what she called either a “Rainy Brain” or a “Sunny Brain”. She also explained that rather than these just being a “state of mind” that could be easily switched, they actually represented different ways in which a certain person’s brain works. More specifically, they represent which parts of a person’s brain are more dominant in their thought process.
Without going into too many details, in a person with a Rainy Brain, the part of the brain that sends out signals about being fearful or cautious is more powerful than the logical part of the brain that weighs up the situation and decides that everything will be okay. Therefore, that person will always tend to focus on the problems that might arise from a situation, even if there’s no logical reason to assume that the worst will happen.
In a person with a Sunny Brain, this is reversed. The part of the brain that sends out the fear signals gets overridden by the logical part of the brain, and so the person tends to have a more optimistic outlook on life.
Obviously, both the fearful and the logical parts of the brain have their roles. After all, it’s the fearful part of the brain that can save our lives when we’re faced with danger. However, going through life constantly worrying whilst everybody seems to be having fun isn’t a nice experience.
Professor Fox went on to explain that these brain states are not necessarily set for life, and that the brain can eventually be trained through therapy to become Sunny rather than Rainy, or vice versa. This got me thinking about my own brain.
I was an optimistic child
When I was a child, I seem to recall that I was pretty optimistic about things. If my school homework was done then I remember thinking to myself that everything was fine, and life was perfect. Sure, there may have been the occasional worry, but I think I was generally optimistic about life. I can’t help but think that this started to change about 28 years ago when I started an apprenticeship as an electrician on warships, and later moved on to become an electrical designer.
As an electrical designer, you go through every day knowing that if you make a mistake in your work, a catastrophe could happen, and people might even be killed. With warships, the stakes are even higher than they are with pleasure craft. It’s the same thing that I’m sure people like air traffic controllers go through. As time goes by, your brain gradually becomes trained to look for potential problems in everything you do. Blind optimism isn’t good enough, so I think you train your brain to be Rainy.
Nowadays, things are even worse, as so many jobs involve safety procedures and risk assessments that train the brain to look for problems even harder.
I also wonder whether overexposure to television and newspapers can have a similar effect. Newspapers in particular tend to focus on the negativity in the World, and this could have the effect of training your brain to be rainy. You’re basically telling the fear part of your brain that it’s right, and shouting down the logical part of your brain that’s trying to bring a bit of sanity to the argument.
There’s no “off switch” for a rainy brain
The problem is, once you’ve trained your brain to operate in a pessimistic way, you can’t really switch it off when you’ve finished your job for the day. It doesn’t work that way. You therefore find yourself looking for the problem in everything you do, and you miss out on much of the joy in life.
Could this be why certain people find themselves dragged down emotionally by jobs that other people don’t have a problem with? Could it be that some people’s brains better resist the effect of their jobs? After all, just as some people respond better to therapy than others, some people may find that their brain adapts more to their work than others.
Perhaps that’s why some doctors seem naturally more gifted, and are able to spot things that other doctors miss. It could just be that they’ve developed a Rainy Brain that looks harder for a problem than a doctor who’s Sunny Brain is too quick to give a clean bill of health. It could also be why some workers are able to stay unbelievably cheerful, despite situations that might have others tearing their hair out.
Personally, I think i’d like my Sunny Brain back. As useful as it may be to be able to spot problems before they arise, I’d like to be able to just take some things at face value and enjoy them again.