We didn’t get where we are today by being positive you know. Oh no. Survival is a tough, uncompromising business. Our ancient ancestors needed the negativity bias that is neurally wired into our brains in order to be successful. And successful they were; the fact you are reading this today being proof of that. The paradox is that this very successful survival mechanism – ‘the negativity bias’ – can often get in the way of people being able to experience life positively.
Let’s look at a simple model of how the human brain has been built up over tens of thousands of years of evolution. We can think of it as being composed of three (evolutionary) layers:
1. The Lizard Brain - This is the ‘old brain’. It shares many characteristics with the reptilian brain. It tends to fire in a reactive way. It is alert to dangers. One classic and well-know example that is often quoted is the ‘emotional hijack’ – when our emotions take over and we can actually feel like we are at the mercy of another brain. In some ways that is true. When the ‘red mist’ falls across our eyes in moments of fury or fear, the lizard has taken over the controls.
2. The Mammalian Brain - The middle layer of the brain, which we share with other mammals (in an evolutionary sense) is much more concerned with seeking rewards. More sophisticated processing takes place at this layer than in the ‘old brain’, although in neuroplastic terms it is still relatively ‘rigid’.
3. The Primate/Human Brain - The most recently developed, upper layer of the brains of primates and humans is concerned primarily with attachments and relationships. We see this most clearly in the use of communication, language, social network development and extracted thought concerned with abstract concepts such as philosophy, religion and science.
Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change and alter shape as a result of experiences and repeated use. While neuroplasticity can, and does, take place at all three levels of the brain, it does appear that it is much more difficult to affect changes in the lizard brain than in the primate/human level (or neocortical region) of the brain. For a superb in-depth treatment of this area, I refer you to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.
Why is this important? Well, it means that, no matter how sophisticated and developed our thinking becomes, no matter how much we believe we have our emotions under control, there is, deep within our 21st Century selves, a part of us which is operating on one simple rule, which is basically “Get Lunch – Don’t Be Lunch!”
Now, even in the wild, most anxious episodes resolve fairly quickly. The highly attuned ‘reactive’ brain does not typically operate in a state of high alert at all times. It tends to react to imminent (perceived) danger, and then allow higher parts of the brain to take over by making decisions, such as, “how dangerous is it really?”, “what course of action is appropriate?”, and so on. When things are working well, this allows the ‘reactive’ part of the brain to do its job in short bursts, hand over to the ‘responsive’ parts of the brain to make assessments and work out solutions. Meanwhile the limbic system (lizard brain) can refuel and recover, ready for the next ‘possible’ crisis.
Unfortunately, in some people (perhaps too many), they stay too long in the ‘reactive’ mode. They continue to panic, their limbic system continues to pump adrenalin, resulting in a ‘now pointless’ highly-charged state clouding the ability of their ‘calmer’ and more-calculating higher brain to do its job effectively. Of course, this can result in a self-destructive loop which can be hard to break out of. The less clarity and ‘calmness’ felt, the more the ‘lizard’ reacts, resulting in more limbic firing. Over time, with this repeated pattern taking place, negative memory systems are reinforced, and it becomes more and more difficult for the person to break out of the pattern of reacting that they have developed.
In most people’s modern lives they spend the vast majority of their time ‘not at risk’. Yes, of course there are a number of tragic situations ongoing, such as when natural disasters strike, or for people living in the midst of horrific wars and conflicts. But, for the most part, when people take time to consider their situation from moment to moment, they are rarely in mortal danger. Their heart is beating, they are breathing, they have food, they feel pretty confident they are not going to die today.
Yet, the power of the ‘lizard’ within us means that we are wired ready to detect negative situations more than positive ones. The latest views emerging from neuroscience are that this ‘negativity bias’ is a robust finding, consistent across cultures, and that to overcome the bias (or at least redress it) we need to experience at least a 3 to 1 ratio of positive thoughts or experiences over negative ones.
Given that negative (threatening) memory systems are so well engrained in long-term storage, counterbalancing them also requires that a time threshold for positive thoughts and experiences is required to build up (and reinforce) positive memory systems. The good news is that current thinking suggests that a threshold of only a mere 10-20 seconds needs to be passed for a positive thought or experience to start to be effective.
So, what are the possible ways to overcome the dilemma set for us by of our hugely successful lizard brains?
1) Normalising - First of all, simply understanding what is going on actually has some immediate benefit. When you explain the ‘negativity bias’ to people, it actually helps people to de-personalise it, and not to attribute self-blame to how they feel. It also helps partners and colleagues to work with each other more effectively, providing a common language to share and discuss how each other is feeling about situations.
2) Notice Positives - Practice noticing positives – at least 3 times as many times as negatives – every day. We need to be realistic here. It is, of course, important that we do not lose sight of the job the brain’s ‘high alert’ system is doing for us. For example, if you are a rock climber, it is important that you are aware of the edge of the cliff and the dangers that it poses. However, practice consciously focusing on positive experiences wherever they may be in your everyday life. This may be as simple as noticing things in nature (e.g. bird song) or the smell of your morning cup of coffee. Do this a few times a day – or as often as you can. You may even create the experience, e.g. from memory by recalling positive events.
3) Focus and sustain - Once you have noticed (or created) the positive experience, stay focused on it for 10-20 seconds (longer if possible). Basically, fan the flames of these positive experiences, however small, as they will have a cumulative effect over time. Look at the experience from different angles, ask yourself internal questions about it, examine it and get curious about it. The more and longer you do this, the more you will actually be changing the structure of your brain. You will be creating connections, building up pathways associated with positive experiences.
4) Advanced Classes - Once you find yourself doing this naturally, and on a regular basis, you may be ready to move to the advanced stage of ‘brain re-wiring’. It is proposed by some practitioners (therapists and neuroscientists) that by bringing a negative thought into consciousness while focused on a positive (or vice versa), it is possible to change the neural network so that the positive pathway of neurons can infuse the negative network, so that over time, with repeated practice, they fire together, resulting in a changed experience when situations are repeated.
Rick Hanson uses a wonderful ‘garden’ metaphor to encapsulate this concept. Think of the process of reducing the focus on negatives (through noticing and normalising) as ‘pulling up the weeds’, and the process of increasing the number of positive pathways (through focusing, sustaining and integration) as ‘planting flowers’.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!