For much of life my mind has tilted toward darkness. Pharmaceutical cocktails, endless psychotherapy, and years of meditation practice have helped reset my mood thermometer. But the cliff’s edge is narrow and the tiniest moment of inattention can cause my mind to slide.
Drawing on research in social psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, Hanson and Mendius report that the brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information and that when an event is flagged as negative, the brain (in the hippocampus) makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. In short, the brain has a built-in negativity bias that primes us for avoidance.
It generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense; anxiety also makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness or contemplative practice, since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem. The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and exaggerates future obstacles (p.42).
Good to hear that being attracted to negativity and tending towards depression is “not my fault,” a view long held by my biased mind (and, I suspect, by people unfamiliar with depression). The remedy, put forward by meditation teachers and supported by findings in brain research, centers on–
- not suppressing negative experiences but to
- welcome them as part of being human and to
- make an active effort to internalize positive experiences to heal negative ones.
I’ve recently begun an experiment on neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to learn and change itself. “Emotions have global effects since they organize the brain as a whole,” Hanson and Mendius claim. “Consequently, positive feelings have far-reaching benefits, including a stronger immune system … [and] a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress” (p. 75).
In this experiment I’m spending extra time with positive emotions. On Monday, for instance, after an hour’s workout, I sat a log in the sun, bathing in that marvellous sense of wellbeing brought on by endorphins, sinking my awareness deep inside my body, registering sensations of happiness, presence, and joy. The theory I’m testing is that positive experiences help reprogram the brain — not by wiping out negative memories, but by superimposing or counter-balancing them with positive ones.
source: Hanson, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger.