By Dr Joe Flanders
Thanks to recent developments in neuroscience, we now know that the brain has the property of neuroplasticity, meaning the structure and function of neural networks are constantly adapting to meet the demands of our day-to-day lives. One of the exciting implications of neuroplasticity is that it can be self-directed, meaning we can deliberately cultivate certain preferred brain states. We can actually train our brains for things like happiness, resilience, and compassion.
If you’ve ever attempted to train your own mind, you’ll know that it can be an uphill battle. Despite almost 20 years of mindfulness practice, my own mind continues to conjure up regretful ruminations about the past, judgemental commentary about the present, and worst-case scenarios about the future. While I am far less preoccupied by these stories than I used to be, I often wonder why negative thoughts are so difficult to uproot?
Some psychologists believe that negative thoughts are so enduring because our brains have evolved a built-in negativity bias. From an evolutionary perspective, avoiding dangers, such as predators and hostile neighbours, is actually more urgent than pursuing rewards such as food, shelter, and sex. In other words, it’s more important to avoid being lunch today than it is to eat lunch today. So, over millions of years, animals who were especially sensitive to danger were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who were not. Like it or not, you and I are the descendants of animals with a negativity bias.
Evidence for the negativity bias is everywhere. Consider a time when you got feedback from your boss about some work you did; even if the feedback was 95% positive, chances are you’ll focus more on the negative comments than the positive ones. Think about what proportion of your thoughts are positive vs. negative. Some researchers suggest that the average person has 4 negative thoughts for everyone 1 positive.
Unfortunately, this negativity bias is at the core of a huge amount of unnecessary suffering. It makes us prone to chronic stress, drags our mood down, and degrades our performance at work. If we were able to reverse this bias, or at least diminish it, we would enjoy a wide range of benefits of positive affect, including broader and more creative thinking, greater confidence and courage, and deeper joy and well-being day to day.
So how do you incline your brain toward happiness when it is like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for good ones?” Here are the 3 As, key principles to guide your brain training:
Awareness: Because the brain’s negativity bias automatically makes negative experiences more salient to attention, we need to practice being fully present with positive experiences long enough for the brain to metabolize and integrate them. We need to get better at taking in the good. In addition to fuelling positive energy, this practice will bring greater sensitivity to the conditions that build and deplete your energy.
Accountability: The reality of neuroplasticity is that we have the capacity to shape our brains through our decisions and actions. This is incredibly empowering. It invites us to take responsibility for what is in our control. Even in challenging moments, there is always a choice about how we approach circumstances mentally.
Action: You have probably noticed that negative thoughts often feed off of each other. Worries and ruminations can even trigger a downward spiral in our moods. Take action to avoid getting stuck in these ruts. You don’t have to come up with the grand solution to everything, but taking even small active steps can help sustain momentum.
So keep these principles in mind as you move forward with your brain training and observe if they are making on impact on your mood.