July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Anjana Nair
25th January 2022

The coronavirus pandemic has been unlike anything we have ever experienced.

In the early days of the pandemic, the spread of the virus to every continent and the swelling death toll ensured that each day a piece of news surfaced which was worse than the day before. To defeat the virus, emphasis was placed on building immunity. Yet, amidst the steady stream of worrisome news, a new science emerged – the science of hope, one which helped people to cope. Among these tragedies, our research community, health professionals, and government agencies kept chanting about hope – building a healthy mind. A strong, resilient mindset, governed by optimism and reinforced by hope, is able to help an individual remain level-headed during any crisis. Can hope and optimism 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 which we experience in our minds to allow for a better future. Not only does hope acknowledge significant obstacles, it also carves its own path. It is not delusional, but rather realistic.

When considered philosophically, hope often seems to be at odds with rational and analytical thinking. However, due to its proactive nature, hope creates room for its own validation. In 1991, psychologist Charles R. Snyder devised 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 leads to more Pathways, and Pathways lead to higher levels of Agency. In turn, this builds confidence and commitment to ensure achievement of the desired goal. This theory may just be one of the various psychological approaches but it has its connection rooted in the level of science…

From a neuroscientific perspective, hope is a complex emotion and one which originates in the right side of the brain (responsible for cognitive functions, like emotions), whilst supported by the left side (responsible for logic). Both sides of the brain work simultaneously towards the fight or flight system to move into a calm space through means of the 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 – hope is 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 do show that hope may live in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The 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 overall brain function and structure.

A 2017 study (which 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 which sits just above the orbits, also known as the eye sockets. Scientists 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 has failed to produce any concrete result is that there has been no accessible method as of yet to measure the neurochemical process of hope. Instead, the focus has been placed on studying the connections between various psychological stimuli and observation of its related physiological reaction. Scientists are peering objectively into what is occurring in the central nervous system when exposed to stressful, self-affirmative, or self-supportive stimuli. It is these changes which impact the physiological function of the body.

So why does it matter? 

When, during a conversation or a diagnosis, someone points out your limitations, you create an identity which 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 what you have been told – you are putting yourself into a self-induced box of limitations, zeroing the chance of producing unlikable change. In this process, the pathway’s Thinking gets restricted, creating a ripple effect for the Agency Thinking. 

Instead of 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 which 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 even tomorrow, but it sure may harbour change in near future. The idea of functional neurology works best when one is not put in a fixed or restricted space but is instead open to the idea of the possibility of change. Hope brings this possibility, and when mustered, brings a better and brighter future!          

Artwork: Faye Saulsbury, Editor-in-Chief at I,Science and MSc Science Communication student at Imperial

Anjana Nair is Reviews Editor at I, Science and studies on the MSc Science Communication course here at Imperial. With her background in biotechnology, Anjana worked as a researcher and then pursued science journalism. In her free time, she loves to read science fiction and watch documentaries.