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Our Brain's "Negativity Bias" Part 2

Wednesday May 20, 2015
Our Brain's "Negativity Bias" Part 2

Part 1 of this blog was posted this past March 2015. It focused on neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s work on the brain’s negativity and positivity bias, two evolutionary distinct neural pathways; both of crucial importance to human survival and human adaptation as well as the more personal pursuit of wellbeing and enhanced quality of life—concerns that are always in the forefront to many of us who live with a chronic illness.

 Part 2 presents Hanson’s method for counteracting the  “negativity bias” by strengthening or generating new pathways with “a positivity bias.”

What makes these changes possible is one remarkable feature of the brain - “experience based neuroplasticity.”  The brain’s capacity to learn, and thus change itself is not restricted to our formative years. It is life long. (Some of us “old dogs” can learn new tricks!) We can “install” new mindsets when we pursue the project in a disciplined, sustained and focused manner: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”  Change, depending on its magnitude, can occur in a few months or a few years rather than millennia.

Positivity, it will be remembered, embodies, among others, mental states of contentment, calm, confidence, hope, serenity, gratitude, peace, relaxation, resilience and comfort. They are associated with benefits to our health and wellbeing. These include a strengthening of our immune system, a cardiovascular system with greater capacity to manage stress, better regulation of mood states, enhanced ability to counteract the effects of painful experiences, including trauma.

How do we tilt towards positivity? According to Hanson, by “taking in the good.”  If we are interested in its beneficial effects, a good starting place is to begin noticing positive everyday experiences, as well as realizing how and when we ignore them, allowing ourselves to attend, instead, to what is negative. We need to become mindful of the negativity that is out there and within ourselves as well as the   positivity around us that is ready for us to incorporate. We cannot change what we do not notice.  Having become mindful of positive experiences then, the next major strategy for Hanson is to internalize them, through sustained, disciplined, daily practice. Success is achieved incrementally, one simple, mindful practice

Hanson’s method for “taking in the good” is operationalized in 4 simple steps or 3, as the 4th one is considered optional.

1.     Have a positive experience.

Recall, or create in your mind a life experience you viewed as rewarding.  It has to be an experience not a thought.   It could be a physical pleasure, a sense of pride or determination, a visit with a friend, the smile of an infant,  a flower is blooming, or a hug from a friend. Go small. The experience does not to have to be earth shaking. The littlie things in life, that we often overlook, will do just fine.

2.     Enrich it.

Intensify it. Rest your mind on the selected experience.  Pay particular attention to its rewarding effect.  Open yourself to it, to the feelings it has. Sense it in your body.  Stay with it for 5 to 15 seconds, or longer.  Enjoy it. Relish it. Savor it.  Gently encourage the experience to become more intense. Recognize how it could help you, nourish you or make a significant difference in your life.

3.     Absorb it.

Visualize how the selected experience sinks down into you, like a soothing balm or imagine it is a jewel and place it in the treasure chest of your heart. Recognize that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.

4.     Link positive and negative experiences (optional).

Hold a vivid sense of the positive experience and keep it in the foreground of your awareness.  Now summon a negative or unpleasant experience but keep it in the background.   Try for a few seconds.  If you find that the negative begins to hijack the positive, re-center by dropping the negative and staying with the positive.

Above all, have fun in your practice. To learn more consult:

Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Harmony Books, 2013.

Hanson, Rick and Richard Mendius. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. California : New Harbinger Publications. 2009.

Hanson, Rick. Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. California : New Harbinger Publications. 2009.

Julio F. Angulo, PhDJulio F. Angulo, PhD
NWPF Blogger

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