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Neuroscience of Negativity

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

Feeling negative?

Let’s face it. Things are crazy these days and it is easy to get overwhelmed with worry and dread. Current events and negative news like the pandemic and all its effects, protests and violence related to issues of racial injustice, the vitriol and strife of upcoming elections, constant social media harangues, and the general climate of uncertainty and division make it really challenging to stay positive and hopeful about the future.

It is human nature to put more emphasis on things that go wrong than on things that go right. Neuroscience evidence shows that there is greater neural processing and electrical activity in the cerebral cortex and the amygdala in response to negative stimuli, as compared with positive stimuli of similar intensity. Our minds lean toward noticing and attending to the negative stuff and give it more importance. That’s why one bad review or comment from an unhappy patient, a criticism from your manager or a rejection letter can seem more important than volumes and years of good reviews and work. My favorite example of the power of the negative is the following: a plate of freshly baked cookies becomes disgusting if a cockroach crawls on them, but being near the cookies does not make the cockroach any more appealing!

This negativity effect probably served an evolutionary purpose at a time when humans needed to rapidly react to danger so as not to get eaten by something bigger. It is still useful to recognize threat and bad outcomes and respond appropriately. However, having isolated bad events have a disproportionate effect on emotions or work is not productive. In addition, people who understand this bias, in the media, advertising and politics, use its power to scare us with predictions of disasters or dangers, to grab our attention or hijack our reactions. No wonder we feel gloomy and anxious, like everything is a terrible crisis and just getting worse.

In reality, studies show that on all sorts of measures, life for the average person worldwide is better than ever. The threat of dying in war or other violence has never been lower. 90% of the world’s people have enough to eat, life expectancy in the poorest places has increased by 30 years, and rates of literacy and education, including in girls, are up around the world. Take a moment and think of all the good in your own life. Of course, bad things happen, but they are almost never as bad as they seem in the news or political ads.

Because our brains physically change based on our thoughts and emotions, thanks to neuroplasticity, persistent negative thinking can get wired into our brains and become the default setting if we let it. We will then ignore the positive to heed the voices telling us everything is going to hell. So, it is important to take time to reflect and be thankful for the immense amount of good that is all around us, and make efforts to cultivate the positive. If we understand our minds and the negativity effect we can use our rational brains, those amazing frontal lobes, to identify, consciously intercept and change our thought patterns, and avoid becoming like Eeyore.   



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Post by: Nadia Fike, MD/PhD


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