The Brain's Negative Bias: Remedying Recurrent Negative Thoughts

Lets say you are heading into another IVF cycle, and trying not to let your mind think about how afraid you are of another unsuccessful outcome. Or you are newly pregnant, and trying hard not to worry about what could go wrong again. Or perhaps your period is due, and you are feeling hopeful, but also afraid because you don’t want to endure another let down. It’s distressing, because you can’t stop the fearful thoughts but you don’t want to be negative or pessimistic, and you’re afraid of being too hopeful, because you want to protect yourself from disappointment. In any case, you don’t want to stress about it, because you’ve heard that stress has a negative impact on fertility…

..Sound familiar? Well, did you know that our brains have a negative bias? Our brains actually preferentially scan for and hang onto unpleasant experiences. Evolutionarily, it has been more critical for survival to become aware of danger in order to effectively protect against it.  

Negative memories grow faster then positive ones, and according to neuropsychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson and neurologist, Dr. Richard Mendius, “our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” They explain in their book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, that it’s far too easy to become fearful and pessimistic, especially when constantly faced with intense disappointment – like unsuccessful natural or medicated cycles, or pregnancy loss. Be kind to yourself, and know that your mind is designed to want to protect from disappointment. Remember that it takes conscious effort to integrate positive experiences and to heal negative ones.

They explain that the remedy is not to suppress the negative experiences though, as we simply can’t control or protect ourselves from when they arise. One of the things we can do, is to foster more positive experience. In fact, it is important to stop and to savour positive experiences, as this stimulates more neurons to fire and wire together. Stopping and staying with a pleasant experience for at least 5-20 seconds, while focusing on the associated emotions and sensations that it gives rise to, intensifies the experience in your senses and in your body. This creates a stronger memory and thus a stronger neural pathway.

Taking the time to focus on the wonderful and pleasant things that happen in our life increases the positive emotions flowing through our minds in general. Emotions organize and actually shape the brain. So developing this habit increases optimism and resilience, while helping to counteract suffering from challenging and painful ones.

However, it’s not so much about avoiding or ‘weeding out’ the painful memories, but rather about making space to be present for all of our experiences, no matter how big or small. A pleasant experience can be as mundane as appreciating how thirst-quenching a glass of water is, or how good it feels to put on your comfy pyjamas after a long day of work. It’s about planting other seeds, so that the garden of our mind can be abundant with all kinds of beautiful flowers, and not overrun by the painful weeds.

It’s about remembering to stop and savour the moment. It’s like what Professsor of Medicine emeritus, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”

Dr. Alda Ngo

Alda Ngo