Shifting the Brain’s Negativity Bias

As they say in Tibet, if you can take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. We can turn good moments into a great brain.
~Rick Hanson

I recently had the delightful experience of listening to author and psychologist Rick Hanson (The Buddha’s Brain) on the NICABM brain science webinar. He spoke at length about the so-called “negativity bias” of the brain and what we can do to help our brains overcome it so we can be happier, less stressed, and more effective. His wisdom elegantly maps on to what we are trained to do as professional coaches. In fact, it is one area where it seems to me we are particularly well-equipped to help our clients make lasting, positive changes in their brains.

big_sabertoothWhat is a “Negativity Bias?” 

To put it quite simply, the brain is designed to remember negative things more easily than positive ones. Dr. Hanson puts it like this: for negative events, the brain is Velcro, for positive ones, Teflon. Our amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons scanning for threats (see The Whoosh for more on our friend the amygdala), and the memory of something hurtful or scary goes into our long-term memories with ease. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary biology perspective — that growling noise that preceded a saber-toothed tiger attack? Stuck into my cavewoman brain permanently. A bias towards negativity helps us stay alive and avoid threats.

In our ancestral days, this alertness wasn’t as much of a problem as it is today. We were designed for short bursts of “fight or flight” where we burn resources faster than we can refuel, and then long stretches relaxing and recovering from the stressful event. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we encounter far too many perceived threats (most of our fight or flight reactions in day to day life are unecessary) and have far too little recovery time. Thus, training our brain to be less attuned to the negative and more focused on the positive is a way to live a healthier, less stressful life.

Encoding Our Brains for Positivity

In order for a positive experience to make it into our long-term memory, we must hold it in our field of attention for at least 10-20 seconds. Otherwise, the experience simply slips away. Hanson says that when we do hold positive experiences in awareness for this period of time, we not only encode these experiences into long-term memory, we tune and sensitize our amygdala to focus less on the negative and more on the positive. And because the brain sees what it expects to see, what it is “primed for” (think of buying a new car — all of a sudden there are red Toyotas everywhere!), being more attuned to the positive means we actually see and experience more positive things in our lives.

The Impact of Coaching

According to Hanson, the process of encoding our brains for positivity, what he calls “taking in the good” (that 10-20 second focus on positive experiences), has three key steps or aspects:

1. NOTICE or CREATE a positive experience.
2. STAY WITH the experience, be with it.
3. ABSORB the positive experience. 

In coaching, we routinely help our clients do some or all of this. First, we often call to attention the good things that are happening in their lives. We ask them questions like “What are you proud of?” “What are you celebrating today?” and “What was good about that?” We help them find something worth honoring even in a difficult situation or one they are deeming a failure. And we help them create positive experiences for themselves. We encourage them to do things in alignment with their values, to reconnect with their joy, and to stop doing those things that are unrewarding or unduly stressful.

We also know how to put on the pause button when our clients are inclined to brush past something positive on their way to talking about a problem or issue. We say “Hold on a minute! We need to spend some time on that accomplishment before we go to looking at what’s wrong.” We ask them how it feels, really, to get the promotion or finish the project. We slow them down so they can actually relish their lives and “absorb” the experience.

Hanson also mentioned one other step or aspect:

4. Pair positive and negative experiences

Pairing is when you have the client hold both positive and negative aspects of a situation in mind at the same time, or go back and forth quickly. This, he says, helps the positive infuse into the negative neural networks and thus create very powerful changes. I think as coaches we do this when we are helping our clients look at things from multiple perspectives (at CTI we call this Balance Coaching) or go deep into an experience (what we call Process Coaching). Process coaching often starts with some difficult situation the client is having trouble facing, and instead of trying to fix it or find a solution, the coach will take them “into” it by using body geography, metaphor, and other tools to keep the client present and aware of the emotions, sensations and wisdom therein. Usually, after some time spent being present to the negative aspects (being present is distinct from being overwhelmed or lost in the experience), the client will find and begin to explore positive aspects as well, in the process infusing them into the negative neural networks. At CTI, we have seen for many years that Process Coaching is extraordinarily effective at shifting places where the client is very stuck or challenged. (NOTE: Process coaching is also very useful for steps two and three above in terms of Staying With and Absorbing positive experiences.)

Coaching and Positivity

I think that in general coaches tend to have more of a positivity bias toward life — it’s what makes us so much fun to be around! It’s not that we are naive about risks or problems, it’s just that our whole profession is focused not on what’s wrong, but on what’s possible. Through the process of one to one coaching, we also gain so much evidence that people can and do create amazing things for themselves through effort and intention. And of course, as we help our clients focus on the positive for that crucial 10-20 seconds (or more), it means we are also focusing there, thus strengthening the positivity circuits in our own brains.

Isn’t coaching amazing?

Who Are You Becoming?

Who Are You Becoming?

by  on January 18, 2013 in BEabove Leadership {Edit}

The brain has an astonishing capacity to adapt—it’s one of our key evolutionary advantages. A child can move from the plains of Africa to New York City and very quickly learn not only a new language, but also understand cultural cues and subtleties that are often unspoken. Adults, as we know, can have a tougher time because their brains are not as flexible (having already formed into the major neural patterns of adult life), but even so, research into neuroplasticity shows we have the capacity to change many aspects of ourselves at any age.

black-howler-monkey_467_600x450As we adapt, the new environment becomes what, when we moved to Costa Rica eight years ago, we dubbed “the new normal.” Case in point (on a small scale): we bought land in a remote area near the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by fruit trees, monkeys, and exotic birds. It was amazing, wondrous, magical, and very different from our previous home in Minnesota. And we adapted. Our bodies adapted to the warmer weather, staying cool more easily in the hot days of January, and feeling a chill at 72 degrees during the rainy season. Our wonder at the howler monkeys changed to “when will they SHUT UP?” and when guests oohed and ahhed over this bird or that one, we nodded politely and said “Oh, yes, pretty.” Even the ocean palled after a bit. Going to the beach (only ten minutes away) was normal. Riding my horse was normal. Eating as many mangoes as I wanted was normal. Still fun (usually), but instead of an amazing adventure to be lived only in dreams, just the way it was.

And what was amazing, fun and exciting was when I visited the U.S. and was able to shop at Target! Buy art supplies at Michael’s crafts! Drive on roads that weren’t full of potholes! Get in and out of the bank in under 10 minutes! Sleep in a house without bugs! No howler monkeys at 5 am! TV! Internet! Any kind of food I wanted! WOW!!! And of course, that WOW lasted about 2 months when I moved back to Minnesota in 2009. Once again, I adapted. Aren’t we amazing creatures?

It’s far too stressful to the brain to keep everything new. Interacting with the world as if we’d never seen or experienced before consumes a lot of energy. Think about vacationing in a new country where you are not sure how things are done—it can be exhausting as well as exhilarating, and generally feels more relaxing the longer you’ve been there, and much less stressful the next time you return. This is because, with familiarity, we move things into a part of our brain (the left hemisphere, by the way) that looks for patterns, makes assumptions and fills in the blanks. And when we really know how to do something, it will often become the responsibility of a part of the brain that consumes even less energy, called the basal ganglia. (Driving is a prime example of something that once required a lot of concentration and active thought but for most people does not once they have learned and practiced.)

But the reason I am bringing this up today is more important that mangoes versus shopping. As we grow and develop and expand our consciousness, different thoughts and behaviors become “the new normal” as well. And once something is the new normal, it may be difficult to understand how we could have ever been another way. (Which also can make it harder to understand how others can be where they are.) Think about how difficult it is to buy lightweight spring clothes when there is snow on the ground, or warm clothing when it is hot out. What is here feels – on some level – like it will last forever and like it has always been there. Of course we override this all the time, telling ourselves to be practical, so I don’t mean to imply that we are limited to our current experience. And still, our current “normal” has an impact.

In our work teaching coaching, consciousness and neuroscience, we often have people reflect on where they have been on their journey of development. To use the language of the Seven Levels of Effectiveness, where have they shifted—really shifted—something from “below the line” to “above the line?”  We’ve had hundreds of people do this over the years, and in our particular demographic have yet to encounter anyone who didn’t have an example. At least in the world of coaching and human development, it seems we all have made this shift in one or more areas of our lives.

Why is this important? When we bring into awareness who we are becoming, where we have shifted our consciousness, we can own and integrate and stabilize the learning. Because of the “new normal” phenomenon, profound shifts to greater consciousness can simply seem like “so what?” unless we take the time to reflect and honor ourselves for the path we have walked.

One tool we have used for this is to look at each of the Seven Levels of Effectiveness (particularly the bottom three, although it is quite interesting to look at all seven) and ask yourself two questions:

  • At this level, what used to be resonant (resonant = fun, rewarding, seductive, entertaining, interesting, compelling) to me?
  • At this level, how do I feel now? What is now more resonant for me?

For example, when I did this myself recently, I saw that at the level of Frustration, it used to be resonant to me to be right no matter what, even if it meant feeling less connected to the person I was talking to. Winning an argument had real resonance. Although I am not perfect and still occasionally get hooked into that energy, it no longer feels good. I am so aware that when I strive to be right no matter what, there is a cost to the relationship and I am not interested in paying that cost. Now what is more typical is to find alignment, be open to the other person’s ideas, and honor every contribution. This feels great! And when I am with someone who is committed to debate and being right themselves, I most often peacefully and respectfully find a way to walk away. I know others do enjoy that game, but it’s not what I want to play (and making them wrong for it would just be another way of being right!)

Have fun exploring and let me know what you discover!