Published on December 1st, 2016 | by Nancy F. Clark0
7 Reasons Why Your Brain Goes Negative, And How To Go Positive Instead
By Loretta Breuning —
Our brain sees the world through a negative lens: it scans for bad and skims past good. You don’t consciously notice this, so it’s useful to know how it happens on a mechanical level. Otherwise, you will insist “I don’t ignore positives” and “the bad in my life is quite real.”
1 Your brain is designed to learn from pain
It evolved to protect you from having to touch a hot stove twice. Pain is a surge of cortisol, the “stress chemical.” Cortisol connects all the neurons active at that moment, which wires you to turn it on faster to avoid pain in the future. Your ancestors survived because they anticipated pain and acted to avoid it.
2 Mammals evolved social pain
Social support promotes survival in the state of nature. The mammal brain rewards you with a happy chemical (oxytocin) when you find safety in social support, and it alarms you with cortisol as you distance from that safety. It also alarms you when your herd gets alarmed, thanks to mirror neurons. Running with the herd has a down side, of course, so the mammal brain constantly weighs the anticipated pain of social isolation against the anticipated pain of lost opportunity.
3 Cortisol commands attention
Cortisol feels awful because that works– it motivates you to forget everything but making it stop. If your ancestors saw a lion while foraging for food, cortisol motivated them to focus on the lion even when they were very hungry. If they saved themselves by climbing a tree, the feeling of relief wired them to scan for trees. Today we don’t always know why our cortisol is triggered, so we don’t always know how to make it stop. If pizza made it stop in your past, your brain learned to scan for pizza. Distraction can’t save you from predators, but it interrupts the anticipation of pain.
4 Our brain filters information
The world floods our senses with more detail than we can process, so we are constantly filtering it. We don’t notice our filter because the electricity in the brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. Your paths were created by your unique individual past experience. Neurons connect when happy or unhappy chemicals surge, so we all see the world through the lens of past rewards and pain.
5 Disappointment triggers cortisol
Consciously you know that disappointment is not life-threatening, but in the state of nature you have to know when to stop chasing the gazelle that got away in order to survive. Bad feelings are the brain’s signal that expected rewards did not materialize. This helps us stop investing in Plan A and start generating a Plan B, even though we’d rather be enjoying the dopamine of anticipated rewards. So even if you are quite effective at meeting your needs, cortisol is with you.
6 Social comparison is inherent in being a mammal
Social importance spreads your genes in the state of nature, and natural selection built a brain that compares itself to others continually. When your mammal brain sees that you’re in a position of weakness, it releases cortisol and you hold back to avoid conflict. When it sees you’re in a position of strength, it releases serotonin which makes assertion feel safe. The serotonin is soon metabolized, alas, and you have to do more to get more. You try what worked before because that built a pathway in your brain. Sometimes you get disappointment instead of social rewards. A brain designed for social comparison can end up with a lot of cortisol!
7 The vulnerability of youth is the foundation of your neural network
The neural pathways built in youth became the superhighways of your brain because they got myelinated. Myelin coats neurons so they conduct electricity at super speeds, but it’s only abundant before age eight and in puberty. We humans build our neural network from life experience instead of being born hard-wired with the experience of our ancestors. At birth, we’re helpless and vulnerable. Our cortisol surges when we feel needs we cannot meet. That triggers crying, one of our few pre-wired behaviors. So the first pathway in your brain– the foundation on which other pathways rest – is the sense of powerlessness over urgent needs. Puberty adds a new layer of needs to the sense of urgency you myelinate.
It’s not easy being mammal! But when you understand your natural negativity, you can build a corrective lens to let in the positive.
Next, see how to go positive instead.
Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor of Management at California State University, East Bay. She’s the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain. The Inner Mammal Institute offers a wide range of resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry. On Twitter, see @InnerMammal or facebook.com/LorettaBreuningPhD/.
Article photo by Bold Content