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Day 83: The Negative Bias

“It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” -Ram Dass

I feel like I should not still be susceptible to the negativity bias, not within hours of feeling so in love with life and optimistic about my potential. It’s not personal I realize, it is built into our brain structures, kind of like our back-up survival mechanism, only mine must be in overdrive… We were all designed for greater sensitivity to threats and negative stimuli, and for our ancestors it is clear that having the keen awareness of danger signals probably saved some of the species from many a predator. What this looks like in daily interactions is a response mechanism that resembles Velcro for negative events and Teflon for the positive ones. It makes sense in terms of biological evolution, but is not so helpful for daily quality of life.

Even with a daily positivity quest, I know I work harder than some of my friends at staying focused on what is working. Negative comments stick to us much more readily than the positive ones that are hard for some people to even take in. The negative bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of brain information processing. Scientific studies have recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place increased in the brain in response to negative stimuli. I know it is true for me that when my mind is making random connections, I can float through many positive or neutral thoughts without any attachment. However when a pressing concern comes along I am hooked more often than not.

The other gift/challenge of our brain functioning that can exacerbate the negative bias is our natural ability at figuring out and completing patterns. There are many ways in which this ability improves our functioning in daily life, like in recognizing faces or problem solving. However combining the power of negative bias with a strong tendency to over-generalize can and does often create connections that don’t really exist. One memory of a negative personal interaction can turn into a pattern of defeatism in our mind. Experiencing failure in small doses, which is a normal part of life, can create a pessimism that is not grounded in anything but bad brain processing.

I fell into this over-generalized, negative biased space today and it only took two challenging conversations to get me there. By the time I hung up the phone, my aspirations faded like wisps of clouds and were replaced by dark and heavy storm formations that felt too big to hold up. I should have seen my exhausted mind slipping, but as I mentioned, the negative bias is fast- in the first moments of processing, I was already off and running.

Instead, what I wish I had done was to take my own side. I wish that I had been able to stand up for myself, not against the people who were giving me their version of reality, but been able to have my own back. I wished I could have reminded myself of the good that has been happening and encouraged myself to have a wider view than the conversation I had just completed would have warranted.

Getting my mind to be like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative is clearly still the quest. Rick Hanson, in his new book The Buddha’s Mind, suggests three daily practices which I know I have thought of before, but certainly bear repeating here-

1. Look for good facts about yourself and the world and try to experience them in the body.

2. Savor the moments that are sweet and try to make them bigger and longer in your visceral experience… pay attention to how the smile feels on your face or let out one more laugh.

3. Sense the positive moments sinking into you, imagine them becoming a part of you and see yourself as a collection of positive resources.