Humans are wired to be negative (but we can re-wire)

The human brain has a bias toward negativity. Being able to continuously scan for danger and quickly detect threats has allowed humans to survive as long as we have. Although humans have evolved significantly since the prehistoric days and predators are no longer waiting around every bend, our brains are a bit behind the curve. Here are a few examples from the research*:

– The brain typically detects negative information more quickly than positive or neutral information
– Negative events are flagged by the hippocampus and stored for quick access while positive and neutral events are like teflon and more easily forgotten
– People will do more to avoid a loss than to acquire a comparable gain
– In relationships, in takes 5 positive interactions to overcome the effects of one negative interaction

Ironically, our brains are constantly scanning for danger in an effort to make us feel secure. If you encounter a curvy stick on the ground, your lower brain will immediately signal a fear response so you avoid the “stick” and increase your chance of survival. It takes your pre-frontal cortex (the rational higher brain that analyzes the situation more deeply) longer to kick in and conclude that the object is actually a stick, not a snake.

The problem is that we tend to rely on this negativity bias in most situations, even ones that are not threatening, which makes us miserable. In our modern day American world, the threat of being eaten by a lion is unlikely for most, so the brain creates other perceived threats to satisfy the negativity bias. What if I lose my job? What if my presentation stinks? What if they don’t like me? What if I make the wrong choice?

Our brains are always scanning for threats as they were programmed to do in primitive days. When we don’t find a lion lurking in the bushes, we find something else to worry about. This keeps us in a state of mild anxiety and robs us of our ability to feel joy or just relax. On a more basic level, this unnecessary worry makes us ill, prevents us from sleeping well, and causes us to avoid trying new things. Survival, maybe? Living? I don’t think so.

The great news is that the brain is very malleable. The neural connections we use the most are strengthened like a muscle, so we can train ourselves to recognize and dwell on the POSITIVE if we practice. If we strengthen those connections that focus on gratitude, our happy experiences, and supportive relationships, we can live in a state of greater contentment and well-being.

While the concept is simple, the actions are not necessarily easy. Not unlike victims of brain injuries and strokes, it takes committment and daily practice to re-wire our brains. Want some ideas? Tune into the next blog.

In the meantime, ask yourself if it’s worth the commitment. Do you want to simply survive each day in a state of mild anxiety and fear, or do you want to really LIVE each day?

* Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (2009). Rick Hanson, Phd and Richard Mendius, MD

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