Thursday, June 25, 2009

Brain Waves, Part 1

I've been fascinated lately by a couple of cerebral subjects:

First, that positive stimuli have a much harder time being accepted into the brain than negative.

Second, that technology is changing our brains and the way we operate.


Today, I tackle the former.

For me personally, this interest all started a little over a year ago when I heard a presentation by psychologist Rick Hanson who studies the psychology, neurology, and "contemplative wisdom". He co-publishes the Wise Brain Bulletin and speaks about how to consciously incline your brain toward being more receptive of positive experiences. Seems that ol' flight or fight instinct has a pretty strong pull, so our brains tend to emphasize negative experiences over positive so that we can more readily get our spears ready when a sabre-toothed tiger approaches.

But we don't want to spend our entire lives in a defensive mode, always on the lookout for threats, do we? Except that the part of your brain that processes negative stimuli is stronger than the part that processes the positive, so that positive part needs exercise. Dr. Hanson suggests that we need to consciously register positive experiences to help train our brain to receive them and remember them more fully. This, in turn, will incline our brains toward a more wholesome state, which is an inherently healthier place to be. "Use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being -- and those you touch" says

To add more grain to the silo, the lead story in the May 2009 The Sun magazine is an interview with Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist who studies positive emotions and author of a new book, Positivity. In tandem with Hanson, she says that "negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish, and positive emotions are subtle and fleeting; the secret is not to deny their transience but to find ways to increase their quantity...balance negative feelings with positive ones."

This task, however, as Frederickson and colleagues have mathematically determined, is not a 1:1 proposition. Instead, they claim is takes three positive events to every one negative event to reach a tipping point.

From her research, Frederickson says she definitely changed her parenting by trying to better balance negative reactions in her sons' days. In the marriage ring, she says that research suggests married couples who share a 5:1 positive:negative emotional experience ratio are in stronger relationships. 1:1 usually means a doomed union.

I knew marriage was harder than regular ol' life...

So what do we do about all this?

"Negative experiences can demand our attention so much that is takes self-discipline, willpower, and practice not to focus solely on them, and to look at all that's positive in our situation, as well. Negativity doesn't always feel like a choice; it feels like it just lands on you, and you have to deal with it. Positive emotions, I think, are more of a choice," advises Frederickson.

Great. Another thing to think and worry about (negative #1).

But, reader, a few suggestions Fredrickson gives to help positivity along naturally: pay attention to kindness (positive #1), go outside in good weather (positive #2), and rearrange your life around your strengths (positive #3).

There. We've hit our 1:3 tipping point. Life is good now. Except that I need do some extra work on my marriage.

(554 words)


  1. Conclusion: Being an eternal pessimist, I am doomed!

    (which makes me even more pessimistic about the future!) :P

    Pretty informative post, btw.

  2. 3:1. Thanks for quantifying that, I have some work to do too. I just wrote a post on how social networking technology is changing us:

  3. Great Post!
    I think our family might need to tweak the "best and worse part of the day" to make it a 3best to 1worse ratio -- come to think of it, I often find myself reminding the youngest, when she's listing a second or third negative thing, to think of a GOOD part of her day...

  4. Now that you have me totally confused(It does not take much) I am off to goof off all day with my friends.

  5. Frederickson forgot (positive #4) enjoy a nice glass of wine........