The Neuroscience Behind Negativity

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I’ve often wondered why negative occurrences, or maybe more accurately things that we label as negative, seem stickier than positive events.  The negativity in daily life seems to stick with me longer than when something positive happens.  For example, if two really positive things happen and one negative in my day, the negative one might be more heavily on my mind by the evening.  If you’ve found the same to be true, there’s a good reason for it (and it’s not that we’re horribly negative people).

Neuroscientists have found that our brains and evolution are at work when it comes to what is known as the negativity bias.  Our brains are actually wired to assign more weight to a negative event than to a positive one.  Psychologist, Rick Hanson, puts it succinctly this way, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones.”  Our ancestors were well served to apply more weight to negative stimuli.  If they avoided an encounter with an animal seeking to kill them, they were able to live another day.  Avoiding such a situation was imperative to their survival.  Though unnecessary, today, we are left to deal with those same tendencies in our brains.  There are several things we can do to change our neural pathways, however.

Hanson has been researching ways to take advantage of our brain’s plasticity, or ability to change.  Something as simple as an activity that helps increase your awareness of your own body, such as yoga, meditation practice, playing golf or dancing, can change your brain.  Neuroscientists have found that these activities thicken the insula, a part of our brain that helps increase our awareness of self and our empathy for others.  Hanson also suggests we make a conscious effort to soak in the positive experiences we encounter.  Identify the positive and allow yourself to take it in, and reflect on it later in the practice of a gratitude journal, for example.

Read more about Rick Hanson’s research here.

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