Counteract the Effects of Our Natural Negativity Bias
Do you ever feel as though no matter how much is going well, you can’t seem to shake what isn’t?
Maybe you go through the day and ten different things happen. Nine of them are either positive or neutral, one was negative.
Why is it at bedtime the one you remember is the negative?
Well, it’s not just you.
There is now a body of research on this phenomenon called “Negativity Bias.” (If you are interested in more of the research, google “Rick Hanson Negativity Bias.”)
In a nut shell negativity bias is the special skill our brain has to sift quickly through a hundred different things going on to find the one that is, potentially, a threat.
This was great when we were living in a cave, nowhere near the top of the food chain. When being able to pay close attention to threats is what kept us alive.
Think about it.
Sitting in your cave a couple of thousand years ago, just having finished a scrumptious dinner of some small mammal you managed to hunt earlier in the day. Outside the sun is setting over the horizon. A beautiful sight.
Our brains did not evolve to selectively enjoy and remember the sunset…
Because if we settled in comfortably to truly, mindfully, take in the colors and sensations at the end of a successful day and ignored the sound of a twig snapping behind us (threat!) we wouldn’t live to see the sunrise as we would instead be something else’s dinner.
In the grand scheme of evolution and development, a couple of thousand years is a drop in the bucket. As a result:
We still have caveman brains in a modern world.
Our brains remain wired to quickly sort for, and store, memories of threats.
Great when we were constantly swapping roles of predator and prey.
Not so great now that, for most of us, our world has moved past the day-to-day threat to survival.
In the world today, we are consistently bombarded with sensory inputs.
Our so-called “smart phones” keep us connected to everything 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We can constantly be alerted to the terrible things happening not just in our own neighborhood, not just outside our cave door, but all over the world.
Sadly, there is no shortage of terrible, threatening, awful things happening around the world at any moment.
Sadly, we are now aware of it moment-by-moment in a way even our grandparents did not experience.
Mass shootings, political divisiveness, genocide, threats of war…you name it, there is an endless stream of negative, horrifying, threatening events available literally at your fingertips.
The brain does not really distinguish between what is happening to me and what is happening in a video I click on. Watching a stressful video, reading a distressing article, can be perceived by the brain to be a threat to us here and now.
On top of this sort of constant threat alert, we all face the day-to-day pressures and stressors that come with the modern world.
Deadlines at work, worry about the future, regrets about the past. All potentially perceived by the brain as threats.
What happens when we are threatened?
When our brain perceives a threat, it jumps into action leaping into defense mode: Fight, flight or freeze!
A chemical chain reaction takes place, adrenaline and cortisol—the stress hormones—flow into our body.
Digestion slows, heart rate and blood pressure increase.
Our body gets ready to fight the threat, run away from the threat, or if those aren’t available to freeze in place.
In the animal kingdom, when that jump into fight, flight or freeze takes place, and animal uses the energy released, burns the stress hormones, in action to preserve life. A zebra might dash across the savannah to elude a lion, and in doing so utilizes the stress chemicals in its flight to safety. Assuming the zebra is successful, he can then peacefully return to grazing once he’s safe.
In our modern world, when we perceive a threat (and our brain doesn’t do a great job of distinguishing whether the threat is life or death, or just the “inconvenience” of some arbitrary deadline at work or school), those stress hormones flow preparing us for fight, flight, or freeze.
Except we don’t do any of those.
We feel the surge of chemicals, and we make ourselves stay put. “I’ve got to get this work done” we tell ourselves, and we push through the urge to run away, or to fight, and even to freeze.
But the chemicals are still there, coursing through our veins.
The reactions, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, remain until slowly over time things are able to settle out again…until the next threat arises. This constant exposure to stress, and the chemical and body reactions that result, takes its toll on our health and physical, as well as mental and emotional, well-being.
So, what can we do?
There’s the usual “reduce the stress in y our life” which is, of course, excellent advice but can be challenging to implement across the board.
Certainly, however, there are ways to reduce the stress in your life.
If seeing the news, reading the news, clicking on those “got-to-see-videos” increases your stress, then stop.
Stop watching, stop reading. Make a good choice for yourself.
If something stressful occurs and you feel the all-too-familiar rush of stress hormones, get up and move.
Take a walk, do something to allow your body to move and utilize the chemical reactions that are occurring. Give your body a way to discharge the energy that comes with the stress response.
And then include a simple practice into your day-to-day life.
Savor what is good.
Enjoy what is positive.
Truly notice when something pleasurable is before you by engaging all the senses when you can: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
You see, the brain is designed to easily transfer the negative into long-term memory because that is what kept the cave-you alive (the negativity bias.)
The brain does not easily transfer the positive experiences into long-term memory without a little extra help from you.
When something good happens, when something pleasurable occurs, stop.
Take 30 seconds to truly be with the experience, savoring the sights, sounds, smells, felt sense, and taste.
Enjoy the emotions that arise: peace, contentment, safety…
Taking special time to really be with the pleasurable experience allows your brain to then move the pleasant experience into memory.
So even now, in this moment, pause and reflect on something that is pleasant whether it is occurring now, or earlier, or last week.
Really be with the experience and enrich it with your attention to the details around it.