The Negativity Bias

I just finished listening to The Neuroscience Training Summit 2017 from Sounds True, where 20 experts in the field present their latest findings for practical application into everyday life. As a long time meditator and student of psychology and human potential, I loved learning more about the science that supports what many spiritual traditions have long suggested – meditation is really good for our brains and has positive impacts on all areas of our lives. There were many good presentations on trauma as well, including information on how past traumatic experiences can continue to influence us throughout our lives if we don’t actively intervene.

I particularly enjoyed being reminded about the negativity bias of our physiology. Briefly stated, the negativity bias refers to our tendency to prioritize our negative experiences by giving them more value and attention than our positive experiences. In our 6 million year evolution, a lot of that time was spent needing to be acutely aware of any threats in our environment in order to survive.

If we misinterpret a sound as signaling a threat when it was only the wind, we might be tense yet protected had it been an actual threat. On the other hand, if we misinterpret a sound or sight as nonthreatening when it actually was a life threatening signal, our lives would come to a quick end. So the survival value of being continuously alert to threats, and actually looking for them, has been very high over the course of our long history.  Therefore, people being less alert, less on guard, and more relaxed didn’t live to pass on their genetic codes!

When I first heard this explained years ago by Dr. Rick Hansen in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, it all made so much sense. As Hansen says in this book, the brain is designed to keep us alive, not to make us happy or fulfilled. This is information I want everyone to have since we are all dealing with the same kind of hardwiring.

For me, when I can remember this underlying programming, I can be gentler with myself when I notice all the ways I might have registered “threats” throughout my day. They could be really small things like someone’s facial expression, a momentary tense interaction with a friend, not having hot water, questioning whether my dog will come back after being let out. My brain is simply doing its job of scanning for threats. And no, I’m not looking for actual tigers that might eat me, but I am registering these small uncertainties as threats that signal my nervous system into activation.

Another aspect of the negativity bias is that we can cling on to our negative experiences, no matter how small, and disregard or undervalue our positive experiences. From an evolutionary perspective, our positive experiences are nice but won’t lead to us surviving the day so our brain does not emphasize them. This might appear as us having numerous positive interactions through our day with only one being relatively challenging.  It is this challenging one that we find ourselves reviewing over and over in our minds and perhaps even talking about with others. Meanwhile, most of our pleasant, positive experiences are passed over, not being worthy of our attention. Simple ones – like our cup of tea, the smile of a stranger, having a warm lunch, the fragrance of a flower, etc.

The good news is that with this understanding and some simple practices, we can actually make intentional changes to our brain structure that over time make emphasizing the positive in our experience and in the world a more common occurrence. The key is to train ourselves to notice the good in our experiences and then to intentionally emphasize it, to give our positive experiences value by giving them our attention. This could be as simple as feeling good about a positive interaction, registering it more deeply, so that we can have a sense of being nourished by something we ordinarily might overlook. For instance, I could take a moment to appreciate that my dog did come back — sweet! And of course, to notice when our attention is going to the negative and to understand the deep programming that we are all working with that makes this tendency totally non-personal.  Without this awareness we can spend our lives feeling privately neurotic.

I highly recommend Rick Hansen’s work. His book Hardwiring Happiness is a great start to learn ways to use the power of our minds to shape our brains.