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Overcoming Your Brain's Negativity Bias

The human brain has a “negativity bias.” It notices and remembers information associated with negative emotions and events more than those associated with positive ones. Why? Because the human brain is wired for survival. Remembering the sound that a predator makes was more important to our safety than remembering the taste of a ripe piece of fruit. 

We remember the negative 

In his book Buddha’s Brain, Richard Hanson writes that negative thoughts and emotions are like Velcro; they stick in our brains. Positive emotions are like Teflon and slide right through. 

For example, if you had nine things happen during the day that went pretty well and one thing that went great, but also one disparaging comment from a co-worker about how you handled a situation, what are you thinking about at the end of the day? The nine things that went pretty well? The one that went great? Or the comment from your colleague? 

If you are like most people, the negative thing is the one that we remember most strongly. This negative focus gives us a very unbalanced view of ourselves and our lives and consumes a lot of our time and energy. The more we allow this negativity bias to run unchecked, the more habitual our focus on negativity becomes. 

It also means that our brains are less likely to notice or remember when we are feeling neutral or successful than a mistake we made. This can create a narrative that we are not competent, when in fact we are, we are just not noticing it.

What can we do about it? 

You can start by noticing the positive things you experience during your day. Maybe it is a particularly good cup of coffee, or the birds singing, a person who smiles and holds the door for you, or completing a task you feel good about. When you notice them, stop, breathe slowly and deeply, and savor the moment. 

This doesn't mean we should never have a negative feeling or emotion. As humans we experience a whole range of emotions in the course of the day. But you have a choice about what you focus on. By training your brain to notice - and feel - the positive as well as the negative, you will begin to create a more balanced view of yourself and your life. 

You can also try to notice how many times you do things well during the day. Try to build a habit of checking in with yourself throughout the day and acknowledging what you have done well. Again, take a moment to breathe deeply and anchor in the feeling of success.

A gratitude journal is a great way to begin training yourself to look for the positives. If you know that each evening you are going to write down three things that happened that day that you are grateful for, your brain is more likely to start watching out for them during the day. 

The more we repeat or pay attention to something – especially if there is emotion attached – the stronger the neural pathways associated with it become. That’s how habits form. If something feels good, our brains want more of it. When we consciously pay attention to what feels good and we anchor in the feeling, we begin training the brain to look for and remember the positive, so we can get more of the good feeling.  

Over time we can learn to shift our perception of the world (and ourselves!) to one that is less negative and more balanced.