The subconscious does not always work in harmony with our thinking brain. Deep at its root is the amygdala – a sub-system totally involved in the survival of the species in general, and the survival of you in particular. It will decide when you are ready to fight, feast, flee or even fornicate, and you pretty much go along with what it wants.
That “flee” bit is very important. Every time you come up against a potential bad situation, your amygdala will decide if flight is a good option, and put your body into flight mode. Lots of adrenaline to pump up the system, deep heavy breathing to provide the oxygen needed for a short sharp sprint. It does not care that you are here to speak in public – it senses danger and makes it very difficult for you to utter a sensible word.
And as survival strategies go, that is a pretty sound one. If now is not the time to fight, then now is the time to get our of here as fast as possible.
There is a snag. Getting out of bad places takes a far higher priority than staying in good ones. Which means the amygdala is preoccupied with supplying you with emotions involved with all the bad things that have ever happened to you. Because in prehistoric times, the bad things that could happen to people tended to involve death and maiming.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson refers to this as “the brain’s negativity bias. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing – and unfair – residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory.”
When we were savages, the bad emotions may have centered on carnivores and deadly spiders – but the echo is that now you may find a pleasant day out is marred by one single – perhaps trivial – thing that marred its pleasure. If at work 50 people treat you great, and one treats you bad, you may fixate on the one who treats you bad.
The way the brain works in this manner leads to one of the most common shared experiences among us all – negative thoughts.
It is thought that negative thoughts is the mechanism by which the subconscious reminds our thinking brain of the unpleasant consequence of some act or other, to try to steer us from repeating it. And that may be the case. But what is missing, is the feed back to say to ourselves – “message understood.”
Which means while trying to summon up courage to ask a pretty girl to dance, some boys are reduced to an inability to say a word – being bombarded from within of the agony of being humiliated again by a public rejection.
And so on into adulthood. The fear of potential failure swamping any hope of achieving the elation of success.
It all seems a bit dire, but there is hope.
First is the principle of neuroplasticity: A mechanism often observed, but not yet fully understood, which shows the way we use our brains in our lifetimes actually changes its physical structure. The slogan “Think Positive” is built on this principle.
It also good science that focused thinking by the higher functions in the brain can alter the way the lower ones react. Boot camp training is all it takes to change some cowards into potential heroes: the sustained, intense drilling of overcoming one’s fears means that one can overcome one’s fears.
The spiritual disciplines of yoga, Buddhism, aromatherapy and the like, all work from this central principle: take the positive and beneficial mental attitude you desire, and the lower mental functions will, eventually, follow suit.
In the short term, you might need some quick fixes. The first is recognizing why you have bad thoughts taking away some of life’s simple pleasures: your subconscious is fixated on the bad things that can result, and will constantly remind of the bad emotions you have gone through.
So – respond to them with an “I understand, and it won’t happen again” feed back. Some experiments show that this tactic alone had reports of high success by some participants.
Secondly, if the stream does not ease up, try the age old technique of deliberately ignoring them. We never get a single negative thought – they come in a pack. As soon as the first one arrives, deliberately distract yourself until they stop, Walk around the room to touch 20 things, stopping each though in mid-think. Pick up a favorite novel and read half a dozen paragraphs until the background noise stops. This worked for our grandparents – it might work for you.
A new study out of Spain shows a novel approach that has had good results. You actually write down the negative thought you have just had on a piece of paper. And physically throw it into a trash can. (Mentally throwing it into a trash can had only half the effectiveness – you have to really do it.) The immediate impact came on self assessment scoring: those who tossed the bad thoughts away scored an immediate higher average than those who had not. And the participants later reported that persistent negative emotions that had been thrown in the trash can returned less frequently and less intensely. To be fair, on self reporting experiments, the placebo effect can be greater than in any other sort of experiment: but since placebos have positive effects on medical states, this time we should welcome one with open arms.
Chronic moribundity will not be cured by such methods, one would think – but your everyday put down by your own amygdala might be brought into check. May be worth a try.
Tomorrow – let’s look at the other side of the equation and see where happiness actually comes from.