Our brain’s default setting of a turbo-charged negativity bias may be the very reason that we have so many difficulties — of our own making — as we move through our adult lives. The reality is that we can be receiving a lot of support, encouragement and even love, but be totally blind to it. We can be stuck in the negativity bias and all the good that is pouring over us every single day, simply runs off.
This sounds really hard to believe doesn’t it? Yet we have examples of this truth all around us. Others can take a look at our lives and see the obvious positivities even while we focus solely on dumping out one complaint after another. People hop from one relationship to the other only to discover the same old problems crop up in that new partnership. It’s not the problems we face, it’s the patterns we keep using to deal with them.
And many of our unconscious behavioral patterns are deeply rooted in the brain’s negativity bias. As I shared in my previous post, Deliberate Growth, the negativity bias serves us well in childhood but it does need to be updated as we grow up. Just like outgrown shoes and childlike responses to our emotions, we need to free ourselves from the unconscious default setting of the negativity bias to extract all the goodness from our ongoing lived adult experiences.
During the recent Being Well podcast episode entitled “Making Learning Stick”, Forrest Hanson pointed out that research confirms when most of us are asked about our daily experiences, our tendency is to report on mostly good stuff. And yet, very little lasting microdoses of these good things in our life actually penetrate our brains. The old negativity bias is a stealth collector of the bad stuff — and it blocks the brain from “taking in the good”. Next thing we know, there is a large pile of sticky, murky, opaque negativity getting in the way of activating the positive benefits of all the goodness that unfolds naturally in our lives everyday.
Consider this keen observation that Dr. Hanson shared:
“People are having many experiences in which others are friendly, supportive, appreciative, warm — and still….deep down inside, they feel lonely and uncared for.” — Dr. Rick Hanson
I believe many of us can relate to Dr. Hanson’s insights from both sides of the equation. We may be the ones in our friendships and relationships that are providing support, caring, understanding and encouragement — and yet we sadly watch our loved ones sink deeper into despair. On the flip side, we may be so overcome with our feelings of shame or unworthiness, that we too are unable to actually see and feel the gifts of empathy, love and support being offered to us.
We have to be in “receiving mode” to be aware of these positive experiences happening in our lives. Yet if our brains are unconsciously blocking entry, it’s because the negativity bias and our recorded past experiences have teamed up — and we simply cannot take it in. We are not in “receiving mode”.
This is where the enneagram can be such an effective tool. We can begin to recognize our standard behavioral patterns, and learn “why” we leaned so hard on them in childhood. This awareness of our behavioral patterns becomes the entry point for change. Recognizing adaptive childhood patterns and trading them in for more mature ways of showing up in life begins to disrupt the negativity bias and open the pathway to take in good experiences.
In his therapeutic work on adaptive childhood behavioral patterns, author and psychotherapist Terry Real offers this whimsical yet poignant image:
“You don’t want those adaptive childhood patterns driving the bus. Put your arms around them, love them up — and then announce: take your sticky hands off the steering wheel!”
So, let’s circle back. The factory default setting in our brains is a turbo-charged negativity bias. Without upgrades and resets, we take these default settings into our adult world. Over time, the negativity bias of our brains becomes a very strong and powerful muscle. It blocks what we want most — better experiences, more good than bad, progress on our goals, meaningful relationships.
As Forrest Hanson pointed out, it is a long, well established engrained pattern.
And if changing this was easy, we’d all be psychological superstars. But we didn’t even know that, let alone know how to change it. And this is precisely why these new research findings on positive neuroplasticity are so relevant.
Dr. Rick Hanson and his son Forrest made clear that incidental learning is pretty limited. Any brain upgrades and glitch fixes that we want to install and activate are going to require proactive and deliberate practice.
Two things really stood out to me as Rick revealed just how challenging this pivot can be. One is that what we really need to do is change a long-entrenched habit. And that habit has been mostly an unconscious one for most of our lives. Even a seasoned mindfulness practitioner and neuroscientist like Dr. Hanson finds himself often falling back into his age-old pattern in spite of the fact that he is both aware and committed to change. The truth is that habits are hard to break. This is where we can integrate the teachings of James Clear in his book Atomic Habits into our awareness of the negavity bias and strive for small, consistent improvements in pushing it aside to let the good things seep in.
The second thing that really surprised me is that most of the hard work we are doing in the self-help industry and on our personal growth journeys are in fact incidental learning. We may intuitively, and perhaps even accidentally, be able to achieve some elements of lasting change through mindfulness, meditation and learning from podcasts and books — yet it is mostly through increased self-awareness and incidental learning.
This incidental learning often can support us in developing better “states” of being. But the wow factor is that deliberate growth will transform our “states” to “traits”.
This is the dynamic aspect of this new research. We can upgrade our brains through positive neuroplasticity to receive and incorporate more positive experiences and responses and be continually learning from this process as we move through life. And we can develop lifelong traits of inner strengths that will serve us, and our relationships, in meaningful, rewarding ways.
Since there is a world of difference between having a beneficial positive experience AND learning from it, Dr. Rick Hanson developed a method using the acronym HEAL to help us. This HEAL method is a framework for mental learning factors that focus on how we “engage” with our experiences. It is this “engagement” process that makes learning stick.
With incidental learning, we are more passively using tools like growth mindset, openness to new experiences and motivation.
With the HEAL method, we proactively and deliberately engage four steps in two phases:
Phase 1 – Activation Stage:
H – HAVE a beneficial, positive experience. Notice it — being present in the moment and aware that you are having a positive experience. Or, deliberately creating one — like calling up a feel of gratitude or compassion, motivation or commitment
Phase 2 – Installation Stage: (These learning factors MUST underpin any lasting change in neural structure.)
E – ENRICH: Extend the duration, increase the intensity, turn up the volume in your mind, bring all your senses to bear such feeling it in the body, focus on what is novel or fresh about it and recognize its personal relevance to you. For example, feeling included and cared about, valued and accepted)
A – ABSORB: Plausibly sensitize the brain. Fertilize the soil to be receptive to the big enriched seeds that are landing on it. You are deliberately intending to personalize the experience, imagining or sensing what you are about to receiving and making room for it. Focus on what is rewarding, meaningful and enjoyable about it. This increases release of dopamine and epinephrine in your brain which creates lasting neural change.
L – LINK: Link the experience. A common practice in psychotherapy and even every day life, is linking to the positive. We are aware of both positive and negative throughout out day, and we are intentionally making the “positives” bigger. With this practice, you can gradually soothe, ease and even replace the negativity material.
There will no doubt be more studies conducted and more applications for this game-changing new method in the self-help industry, in couples counseling, in parenting practices and in mental health treatments.
This new research takes positivity and optimism to a whole new level. Rather than fighting our turbo-charged negativity bias, and donning armor to protect us from our vulnerabilities, we can learn — and teach — how to grow inner resources of courage, resilience and patience, all while harvesting more of the good experiences and feelings that flow into us every single day.
For those who often push away what they want the most, this just might be the solution they’ve been seeking.