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Can You Train Your Brain to Combat the ‘Negativity Bias’?

The cumulative impact of a 20-second visualization is something we all have time for.

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Anyone with a human brain struggles with what psychologists and brain scientists call the “negativity bias,” our propensity to focus more on negative thoughts, feelings and events and less on positive ones.

Yet anyone who strives to live with authentic positivity also knows that the so-called “negative” emotions like fear, sadness and anger, don’t need to be rejected and avoided in order to live with meaning and optimism. In fact, accepting and processing the fullness of your life’s experiences is a required component of positive living.

Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of books including Hardwiring Happiness, says that we can meet ourselves in the middle, urging our brains away from the negativity bias with a simple practice that can be done in less than half a minute.

In a 2013 talk he gave at TEDxMarin, Hanson distinguished between changing one’s mind about happiness-inducing feelings like inclusion, belonging or success, and changing the way one’s brain processes positive experiences. 

“Good experiences bounce off the brain unless we do this little thing,” Hanson said, “meanwhile bad experiences sink right in” for reasons that are hardwired into the human survival instinct.

His technique is simple: bring to mind someone you know cares about you and visualize yourself in a positive situation together with that person (or pet!). He uses the acronym HEAL to describe what you should do for 10-20 seconds:

Have a good experience

Enrich the experience

Absorb the experience 

Link the good experience with a negative experience

Hanson described the last step as optional, because it can be a slippery emotional slope from remembering a great afternoon with a spouse to recalling a near-miss car accident that almost happened on the way home. But Hanson suggested trying this technique because of the brain science aphorism, “Neurons that fire together wire together,” meaning that associating positive memories with tolerable negative ones can deploy the feel-good brain chemicals to soothe and tame the stress-induced ones.

The gradual, cumulative impact of this practice can be striking. Behaviorally, the habit of taking short moments in our day to immerse ourselves in sweet, loving memories or imaginations is powerful. And biochemically, we are working with the very structures in our brains that decide how to feel and how to respond when positive or challenging moments arise.

Do you recognize the “negativity bias” in your life? How are you working on shifting its impact?

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