Positive People Have Particular Brain Connections

First Posted: Sep 28, 2015 01:53 PM EDT

Researchers at Oxford University have found a strong correspondence between a certain set of connections in the brain, and positive behavioral and lifestyle choices. Essentially, those who are generally positive have different brain connections than those who are not.

The team, let by Oxford's Center for Functional MRI of the Brain, took 461 people and cross-examined the connections in their brains with 280 different behavioral and demographic measurements that were recorded for each participant.

Researchers found that brain activity variation and individual traits lay on a single axis - with individuals who led classically positive lifestyles and behaviors had different connections in their brains than those who were classically negative, according to the release.

The study used data from the Human Connectome Project (HCP), a $30 million, NIH-funded brain imaging study led by Washington, Minnesota and Oxford Universities. 

"The quality of the imaging data is really unprecedented," Professor Stephen Smith, who was the lead author of the paper, said. "Not only is the number of subjects we get to study large, but the spatial and temporal resolution of the fMRI data is way ahead of previous large datasets." 

Thus far, out of 1,200 subjects, data for 500 has been released to researchers for analysis.

The Oxford team used the 461 scans they had to create an averaged map, or connectome, of the brain's processes across the participants. 

"You can think of it as a population-average map of 200 regions across the brain that are functionally distinct from each other," Smith said. "Then, we looked at how much all of those regions communicated with each other, in every participant." 

The data showed that participants with a connectome at one end of the scale score highly in measure considered to be positive - vocabulary, memory, life satisfaction, income and years of education. 

On the other hand, participants on the opposite end were found to have high scores for traits considered negative - anger, rule-breaking, substance use and poor sleep quality.

The researchers point out that their results resemble what psychologists refer to as the 'general intelligence g-factor'. First suggested in 1904, it's sometimes used to summarize a person's cognitive task abilities.

"It may be that with hundreds of different brain circuits, the tests that are used to measure cognitive ability actually make use of different sets of overlapping circuits," said Smith. "We hope that by looking at brain imaging data we'll be able to relate connections in the brain to the specific measures, and work out what these kinds of test actually require the brain to do."

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