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The Negativity Bias: Mindfully Reprogramming our Mental Obscurations

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The human brain is like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson tells us. (Hanson 2013a) He observes that our brains are “primed to go negative” given that the amygdala uses approximately two-thirds of its neurons actively looking for the unwelcome. If we are to believe our brain, then “happy happy joy joy” has little to no place in our lives at all. Well, maybe one-third, if we’re lucky. And given the dual nature of our brain’s biology, we are dealing with the amygdala being not one, but two little nuggets neatly embedded in both sides of our cranial meat, arguably giving us no escape from, or trust in the “advice” of either the logical or the intuitive hemispheres. 

Hanson refers to the amygdala as our own personal “alarm bell.” Experts tell us that this was in fact an evolutionary survival strategy. Whenever our ancestors kicked back to enjoy the sunset, they became more vulnerable to becoming some predator’s evening meal. Remaining vigilant upped the likelihood of their staying alive until breakfast and, ultimately, breeding. Our brain’s wiring really hasn’t changed much there. We will subconsciously scan a situation for the worst-case scenario, focus on the negative, lurk in the shadows, and disregard the bright side as an unsafe spotlight. It’s known as the negativity bias. 

The brain wants to learn fast. It needs to learn fast—it’s imperative for our survival. So as soon the amygdala sounds its alarm bell, bearing in mind that it’s ready and primed for a raincloud, the bad news is rapidly and easily stored in our memory, ready for next time. And the more we repeat an action, mental or physical, the more myelin greases the axon tracks creating an ever-increasing speedy highway until this learned behavior becomes instantly intuitive. “Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain. This is what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” (Hanson 2013b)

Of course it’s true that some people are inherently more positive than others, and there’s also a separate conversation about serotonin production, but the fact remains that walking on the proverbial sunny side of the street is more effort for most folks. This is because mental activity takes a lot of energy and positive news takes much longer for the brain to accept and move it beyond the often-fleeting short-term part of the brain and into the long-term memory vaults. This can mean that the reward-seeking side of our brain assumes it’s all going to be too much like hard work anyway, so we might even give up before we start.

You see, good news needs to be held in our awareness for at least a dozen seconds. OK, that may not sound like long, but it takes practice to consciously hold on to a warm, fuzzy, positive thought or experience for more than a few moments before our inner monkey-mind claps its cymbals together loudly and repeatedly, and looks for the rain again. Mind training becomes imperative. It’s the other dual type of brain we have; the cranium-encased meat matter brain that gets hardwired, and is witness to it all. The witness must become aware and consciously force the biology to do its bidding.

In no way is this article suggesting that we invite tragedy into our lives through our unconscious behavior. Nor do I wish to imply that abuse is in any way acceptable. The following text is a dialogue in the broadest sense, in the way we can address our own mind with awareness and why mindfulness is important within the construct of how our brain functions. And how to help recognize and address the pitfalls of our biology that can take us down shadowy paths that no one should inhabit.

“Most of the shaping of your mind remains forever unconscious. This is called implicit memory, and it includes your expectations, models of relationships, emotional tendencies, and general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind—what it feels like to be you—based on the slowly accumulating residues of lived experience.” (Hanson 2009)

The human brain appears to be designed to connect socially, so for a vast majority of us, the most likely pattern we fall into is that of unconscious relationship, romantic or otherwise. For our own mental, emotional, and sometimes physical health and that of others involved, reactive behavior often rides roughshod over responsive interaction. There’s a marked difference between the two. One is conscious and the other is not. Left to unaware programming, we are far more likely to react in unconscious ways that have been hardwiring themselves since we were born thanks to our immediate surroundings.

And so often we will root out situations that somehow fulfill these unconscious expectations. As a typical result, we will consistently attract and be attracted to relationships that fulfill these deep rooted predispositions—not through vibration but through life programming. If our childhood experience of love involved feeling seen, appreciated, supported, valued, encouraged, and obtainable without question, our adult expectations of love will tend to be exactly this and we will likely thrive and feel emotionally secure within ourselves, irrelevant of the lemons that life may throw our way. If, however, our childhood experience was the opposite of the above, we will manifest a relational life that echoes that expectation, be it in friends or lovers. It is what our body tells us is “normal” and our brain wants us to feel safe within its normality, irrelevant of any sense of disconnect, pain, or emptiness it leaves us with. Because disconnection, pain, and emptiness is love to the brain of a person who was deprived of unconditional emotional embrace. So healthy, loving, “normal” relationships will sadly, often be rejected in favor of dysfunctional ones. 

Like an onion, these truths and manifestations can be buried under many layers and reasons. Your brain will come up with a multitude of stories to legitimize its reasoning to keep you in its comfort zone. “I like keeping it simple” may be a common one as this allows space between interactions and deeper connection. Connecting deeply is uncomfortable to that brain’s programming. It may equate it with the “inevitable pain of rejection” from the other person. Guilt may keep us stuck as we trade contentment for unhealthy obligation and obsolete promises thanks to enforced expectations. An assumption of being taken advantage of, lied to, or talked about might lead to trust issues, especially in today’s fantasy-prone space of electronic communication. Or we don’t feel we deserve happiness, or ever feel good enough, or feel an innate sense of aloneness. And we’ll unconsciously find relationship situations that fulfill all these “realities.” 

So learning what’s intuitive and helpful, and what’s bad programming is the first step in clearing away our emotional obscurations. Check these reactions in real time and then respond consciously. Who would you be and how would you feel if you didn’t allow the negative bias to dictate your mood and behavior?

Conscious meditation, be it cushion sitting or fully immersed in the frenetic world (which, let’s face it, is most people’s everyday reality where the greatest challenges, teachings, and growth tend to happen), is the key to rewiring our biological circuitry. A key to unlocking the door to the journey toward the Buddha-mind.

With thanks to Rick Hanson.

References

Hanson, Rick. 2013a. Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain—and Your Life. London: Ebury Digital.

———. 2013b. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York City: Harmony.

———. 2009. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

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