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?

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4 responses

  1. This was a great reminder for myself. Positive thinking doesn’t come naturally to me and I deliberately spend some time every night listing the things I am grateful for, however reading your post reminded me of a component I am missing. What part do I play in all of that? What actions should I be proud of? That is something I was totally overlooking. Again thank you for the reminder. I am going to share this article with my network.

  2. Pingback: Negativity Bias: Override It for Greater Happiness | Passing Thru

  3. Pingback: Taking In The Good | gRow Coaching Blog

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