Bad News Travels Fast (in your brain)In the song “Sun Comes Up It’s Tuesday Morning” The Cowboy Junkies sing “Everybody knows good news always sleeps ’til noon.”

It’s not near as much fun to spread good news, now is it? You don’t usually pick up the phone because you just have to call someone right that minute and tell them what a fantastic day you’re having. This bias is also true in your brain.

In his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson cites studies which have shown that the brain detects negative information faster than positive. In fact, studies have shown that even when something negative, a fearful face in experiments, is registered by the brain out of conscious awareness, the amygdala still lights up.

Similarly, when an event is flagged as negative by the brain, it’s stored differently and more carefully by the hippocampus.  Hanson likens the brain to Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive or neutral ones.

This attention to negative makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because the primary goal of your brain is to ensure your survival. In general, it’s the bad experiences, not the good ones, that impact survival.  Our mammalian ancestors would have benefited much more from remembering the maneuvers they used to avoid being some hungry predator’s dinner than remembering a particularly nice napping spot.  Not recalling the former could result in death with no chance of passing on their genes.

Negative Events Pack More Punch

Hanson explains that negative experiences have a bigger impact than positive ones on our brains. For example, studies have shown that, in a relationship, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one, because it takes numerous “successes” to undo the feelings created by one “failure.” Even when a person has unlearned a negative experience, the event leaves a path etched in the brain that can easily be reactivated if similar circumstances are detected.

Your brain is always deciding whether to avoid or approach whatever it encounters in the world and is primed for avoidance naturally, which causes suffering by creating anxiety. Surprisingly, approaching also inherently involves suffering because of the cyclical nature of life. Even if all the signals are green to approach and the experience is pleasant, it has to end at some point. Everything that comes together, is separated eventually. Children grow up and leave home. Every one dies. Because of this cyclical nature, Hanson says that experiences are  incapable of providing and are an unreliable basis for happiness. So, the same strategies that are ensure your survival cause you to suffer.

I have found in my own life, and Hanson goes on to explain that developing compassion and practicing mindfulness counters the natural negative bias of the brain. These practices can allow anyone to have greater emotional balance, healthier relationships, more effective actions, and greater peace of mind.

23 Comments

  1. This was a very interesting post. While I’m not fond that our brains are wired to pick up on the negative, I can see how this would be the case, given our need for survival.

    I suppose this gives us a challenge — to really work at staying positive and centered. I know in my own life, I have to constantly work at staying balanced.

    I have remind myself to stop and recognize happy or positive moments as they occur and to make note of them so they stay in my memory. I even write them down and review them. As a person who has always leaned towards the “glass half empty” doing this exercise has really helped me keep my focus on the positive, but it does require work.

    My fantasy is that the more I record happy and positive memories, the more my brain has to replace the negative ones with these positive ones. I like to think I’m putting Velcro on the Teflon areas of my brain. I know that this is probably not true, physically, but I like the image anyway:~)

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sara, sounds like you have already discovered this in your own life and found some tools that work for you! Great!

      You are not alone in your “glass half empty” view of life. That was my natural setting too. You are absolutely correct in that the little things you do, every day tilt this tendency in the other direction. The majority are going to have to consciously work at this.

      In doing so, you are really, physically changing your brain. So that, over time, this should become easier and more of the norm. It has for me. Keep it up!

  2. Tony Piparo Reply

    The great thing is, even if we condition the mind to connect more and look for positive experiences it will never overwhelm our basic survival instinct and so if sonething does threaten our existence we will confront it with all of our natural ability.

  3. Hi Debbie. Fascinating post. Your reference to the “etched path” brought to mind what happens when you delete a file. I believe there is some wiping of the starting point but specialist software can be used to recover this – so the path to the file remains even though you think you have removed it (if that makes sense 😉 )

    Your closing paragraph resonates absolutely with my view of my life too. Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Stephen…thanks! The brain is much like a computer it seems. However, unlike a computer, it is not factual point for point in storage and retrieval. We actually make up and fill in a great deal. Herein lies our opportunity to create the life in the last paragraph! Good for you for adopting this! Empowering, isn’t it?

      • Hi Debbie, empowering, yes, with practice. I find that this approach brings with it a sense of calmness (most of the time!) and inner peace. Take care. Stephen

        • Debbie Hampton Reply

          So good for you! I too have much more peace and a sense of calm in my life. That is priceless to me. This science just shows that our natural tendency is towards the negative and why we have to be vigilant in our practice

          You are right in your comment “most of the time.” I have found that mindfulness can also stir things up a bit. At least now, I am conscious of it and look at it and explore it when this happens.

  4. Debbie,

    That pesky amygdala is at it again! Thanks goodness for the amygdala – it does protect us. But nice when it can relax sometimes!

    I found this really interesting: “Studies have shown that, in a relationship, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one. It takes numerous successes to undo the feelings created by one failure.”

    I agree with your conclusion about the power of compassion and mindfulness. True happiness does not lie in the brain!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      That darn amygdala. That is a fun word to say, huh? It does not surprise me at all that what was originally developed to serve and protect us is completely out of balance in this modern world we now live in that bears very little resemblance to the world of long ago. Makes sense that we should have to consciously adapt and train it to work for us instead of against us at this point. This is where the mindfulness comes in. Unfortunately, I think it is going to have to become painfully obvious before this concept reaches critical mass with the general population. Maybe…hopefully not.

  5. Ande Waggener Reply

    Very interesting discussion of something I was just thinking about this morning. Everyday, my mother calls me with the “latest news” of this friend who has an illness or that person who had an accident or this person who lost money. She used to pull these out of the media, and by completely ignoring her when she does that, I’ve been able to wean her off of that. Now I’m focusing on having her tell me happy stories, which is all I tell her.

    I agree we have these negative etchings, but I think with some bright brain crayons in the form of focus on the fun, we can draw in some new patterns. 😉

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Yea, I have people who want to partake in the spreading of such stories in my life. I, too, just do not engage in the conversation. Kind of stops it dead in its tracks. Hard to have a conversation by yourself. I just do not see the point and do not want to participate in such negativeness. It is just as easy to dwell on something more positive. Although, I have found, more often than not, the people are unaware of their negative focus. They do not even know what color crayon they are holding!

  6. Kerry J. Gilliland Reply

    Interesting comments to your thoughtful essay. A couple of opinions. As the evolutionary usefulness of our reptilian brains diminishes, the cerebrum assumes responsibility to regulate actions. Ideas of sentience, intelligence, choice, will and power “spring to mind.” Thus, we “develop” compassion, “practice” mindfulness, “stop and recognize,” etc. Etched paths likely never fully disappear but the immediacy wanes and we CHOOSE to move on (cerebral activity). Finally and more to the subliminal, we likely dwell on the negatives (of others) to assuage our own subconscious fears of pain, suffering and death and to bolster our on positive internally derived images, concerning our mere existence. Putting one’s mind in a right place, certainly a worthy goal. Just some thoughts. Bye and thanks.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Kerry, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Precisely. As you say, our reptilian brain is going to always be the default functioning. It is up to us to get our frontal lobe involved….our human-ess….and incorporate intelligence, sentience, will and power as you point out and deliberately direct our minds and behavior.

      This just gave me the realization that to not do so is not really living up to our full human potential. I believe, to do this is the next step in evolving.

  7. This show why staying positive takes constant vigilance. I’m full of compassion but mindfulness…hmm let’s just say I’m working on it.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Yes, mindfulness is still for me a very conscious every day, every minute effort also. I look forward to the day it becomes effortless or is that just for monks? Even along the way, it is well worth the effort!

  8. Kerry J. Gilliland Reply

    But I’m wondering about the compassion issue? I’d offer an opinion that Tess’s compassion is somewhat learned (Nature/Nurture debate here). Of course, we are born/bred with an elemental level that exists and it does or it does not, then, progress favorably. For me, it seems that the longer I live, the more compassionate I feel towards others BUT, it remains a constant struggle to be mindful enough to demonstrate that feeling to those others. Effortless? Even monks and nuns have to work at it. Interesting discussion here.

    Love to all,

    Kerry

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      OK …if monks and nuns still have to work at it, then I am doing great! 🙂

  9. ” In fact, studies have shown that even when something negative, in this case a fearful face, is registered by the brain out of the conscious awareness, the amygdala still lights up. The brain is wired to look for the bad.”

    I don’t understand this … how can a fearful face be registered only out of the conscious awareness? How can we see and interpret a face as fearful, but only in the unconscious mind?

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I just realized that you keep using the word “only.” It is not “only” outside the conscious awareness it is “even” outside the conscious awareness.

  10. You can’t answer a simple question without discarding it? I don’t understand and would like to know how the brain can register a frightening face from an unconscious state.

  11. Sorry, I did apologize for that. When I posted the second time my first post showed up again as “in moderation”.

    I emphasized “only” because that was my dilemna and I was trying to word that clearly.

    I read this statement:

    ” in this case a fearful face, is registered by the brain out of the conscious awareness, the amygdala still lights up.”

    as saying the study was done exclusively to see the way the unconscious brain works by itself, without conscious awareness interfering. It says the face was registered OUTSIDE of awareness …. and STILL lights up. Yes, “even” lights up. But I don’t understand how a face can be seen and interpretted outside of consciousness.

    Thank you for your reply I will look at the links.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      No harm, no foul. Hope the info provided helps you answer your questions. Thanks for letting my post pique your curiosity. I luv it!

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