The Brain’s Negativity Bias

From Rick Hanson’s “Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence”:

The brain is an organ that learns, so it is designed to be changed by your experiences.  Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure.  As you read this, in the five cups of tofu-like tissue inside your head, nestled amid a trillion support cells, 80 – 100 billion neurons are signaling one another in a network with about half a quadrillion connections, called synapses.  All this incredibly fast, complex, and dynamic neural activity is continually changing your brain.  Active synapses become more sensitive, new synapses start growing within minutes, busy regions get more blood since they need more oxygen and glucose to do their work, and genes inside neurons turn on or off.  Meanwhile, less active connections wither away in a process sometimes called neural Darwinism: the survival of the busiest.

All mental activity – sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes – is based on underlying neural activity.  Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel.  But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience, neurons that fire together, wire together. This is what scientists call experience dependent neuroplasticity.  This means your experiences matter, what you think about and focus on matters, not just for how they feel in the moment, but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your attention is like a combination spot light and vacuum cleaner: it highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain – for better or worse.

The brain takes is shape from what the mind rests upon.  If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations towards anger, sadness and guilt.  On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there is a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hard-wired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth. Looking back over the past week, what has your mind been resting on?

The brain has evolved a built-in negativity biasTo pass on our genes, our ancestors had to get things that were pleasurable, such as the ‘carrots’ of shelter, food and sex.  Meanwhile they had to avoid or stay away from things that were painful, such as the ‘sticks’ of predators, starvation, and aggression from others.  Carrots and sticks are both important, but there’s a vital difference between them.  From a survival standpoint, sticks have more urgency and impact than carrots.  If you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll have another chance to get one tomorrow, but if you fail to avoid a stick today – whap! – no more carrots forever.  Rule #1 in the wild is: eat lunch today, don’t be lunch today.  Over hundreds of thousands of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay extra attention to sticks, react to them intensely, remember them well, and over time become even more sensitive to them.  Thus, the negativity bias.

Paper Tiger Paranoia: the special power of fear.  Our ancestors could make 2 kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bush, when there actually was one.  The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death.  Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.  In general, the default setting of the brain is to over-estimate threatsunder-estimate opportunities and under-estimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities.

Unless you consciously take in a good experience, it usually washes through the brain like water through a sieve, leaving little good behind (in the meantime, your bad experiences are being caught in the sieve by negatively biased memory).

How to “Take in the Good”:

(1) Notice a positive experience that is already present: in the foreground of awareness or in the background of awareness

(2) Create a positive experience by

  • finding good facts in your current setting
  • finding good facts in recent events
  • finding good facts in ongoing conditions
  • finding good facts in your personal qualities
  • finding good facts in the past
  • anticipating good facts in the future
  • sharing the good with others
  • finding the good in the bad
  • caring about others
  • seeing good in the lives of others
  • imagining good facts
  • producing good facts
  • directly evoking a positive experience
  • seeing life as an opportunity

Good facts are all around, even if life is difficult.  The sun rose today, the coffee smells good, the birds are singing.  Good facts persist inside you: your heart keeps beating, your mind is full of abilities.  Sometimes it may be impossible to notice or create a good experience.  The mind could be shattered by agonizing pain or a terrible loss, or smothered by an overwhelming depression.  Then all you can do is ride out the storm – being with it, letting it be – hopefully with some underlying compassion for yourself.  But most of the time, it is possible to notice or create a good experience, whether it’s looking around for something you like seeing, recognizing your good intentions, or thinking of someone/something you love.