Does the Brain Have a Negativity Bias?

Q: It is said that the brain has a negativity bias. Is that true?

PVH: Yes. By negativity bias we mean that the brain is designed to help us live in a safe way by ensuring that we notice anything that is frightening or endangering. The negativity bias ensures that we don’t end up in the mouth of a man-eating tiger just because we think it might be an interesting experience. For the brain, danger usually trumps curiosity.

Q: Are you saying that the brain causes us to avoid situations that, objectively viewed, are dangerous?

PVH: Yes. If you are in a building and suddenly see smoke and flames, you don’t have to stop and consider whether you should leave the building. The moment you see flames, your brain will shut out everything else from your perception except the flames, so that you will run to safety. For self-preservation, the brain is designed to be hyper-sensitive to these kinds of negative stimuli, and in our fire scenario we see the negativity bias at work.

Q: How does the negativity bias develop?

PVH: When the brain records a negative and a positive experience of the same intensity, the negative experience is usually encoded much more strongly in the brain than the positive experience.

Our emotions are processed by the limbic system of the brain and its related structures, including the amygdala. The amygdala is especially important, for it encodes our memories with an emotional charge. This encoding process has a negative bias. By this I mean that the amygdala puts down a much stronger overlay of memory for negative emotional experiences than for positive ones. Because of that stronger memory overlay for negative experiences, we can remember in much greater detail instances when we were frightened than when we were happy.

Q: The proponents of the negativity bias maintain that the human race is wired with a predisposition toward negativity to ensure the evolution of the species. Do you agree?

PVH: Yes. I would probably express that same thought by saying, “I’m glad God designed us this way because when we’re young and immature, we might jump in front of a moving vehicle and not think anything bad is going to happen.” As we mature, we learn that our actions have consequences.

Q: Are other parts of the brain involved in the negativity bias?

PVH: Yes. The prefrontal lobes, which are constantly monitoring our environment and helping us decide what we should pay attention to. That’s why when we suddenly see flames, no matter what else we may be doing, all we want to do at that moment is run out of the building.

The prefrontal lobes are included in the decision-making process, which asks, “Is this experience positive or negative?” But they don’t emotionally quantify the experience as good or bad. The amygdala does that. Nonetheless, something perceived as negative tends to bring a bigger response from the prefrontal lobes than something perceived as positive.

Q: Using your example of a building in flames, can you explain why a fireman can run into a burning building?

PVH: The fireman’s pre-frontal lobes have been strengthened to the point where he has overcome his natural fear of fire and can control it.

From a neurological standpoint, the process of spiritual growth involves shifting our focus from the level of ego and instinct, which are more associated with the limbic system and the amygdala, to the pre-frontal lobes. When a person meditates at the point between the eyebrows, his or her awareness is focused on the prefrontal lobes, which has a quieting effect on the limbic system and the amygdala.

The more energy we focus on the prefrontal lobes, the stronger they become. When our prefrontal lobes are strong, we are much less subject to fear, ultimately to the point that we become fearless. We become free to decide how we want to respond to situations perceived as dangerous.

Q: Does this mean that the fireman has strengthened his prefrontal lobes by meditation?

PVH: Not necessarily. Repeated exposure to a dangerous situation and learning that you can handle it safely is important. There are also other practices beside meditation which calm the limbic system that may be included in their training. Deep breathing, affirmations, and prayers are good examples. For those who seem “born to be firemen” even without training, it may be that they have brought over from a past life a relatively unarousable limbic system.

Q: Are you saying, however, that the practice of meditation is one of the best ways to transcend the negative emotions that activate the brain’s negativity bias?

PVH: Yes. As I’ve already mentioned, the practice of meditation enables us to transcend the ego, the limbic system, and the amygdala – all of the lower structures in the brain and lower levels of consciousness that create the negativity bias. Our ego is the repository of the lower levels of consciousness reflected in the negativity bias: fears, anxieties, anger.

When people have transcended the ego, they’re not afraid of death. They may prefer not to die, but they’re not going to be frightened of it. Nor are they afraid of losing all of their material possessions in a fire or being bankrupted by an unscrupulous person. They’re not afraid of any of those things.

Q: Is there any research showing which meditative practices are most effective for transcending the negativity bias?

PVH: The research shows that most if not all meditation techniques activate the prefrontal lobes, a process which quiets the limbic system. What we don’t know are the different outcomes of each approach if followed regularly over many years. But we can say with certainty that someone doing a traditional meditation, whether it’s a yogic meditation or a Buddhist meditation, eight hours a day for twenty years, will be a profoundly different person from someone who meditates only five minutes twice a day.

Q: Another recommendation for transcending the negativity bias is to hold a good experience in mind for about 20 to 30 minutes for it to become more deeply encoded in the brain. Some say that most people don’t focus on their positive experiences long enough for them to be encoded in the brain.

Do you agree with this approach?

PVH: Yes, I do. Holding a positive experience in mind functions very much like an affirmation, and we know that affirmations are a very good way of encoding the brain with positive messages. Repeating an affirmation for 20 minutes twice a day would have a very positive effect on the brain’s neural structure.

Q: The negativity bias research also suggests that to positively impact our brain, even strong personal relationships require a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Do you agree?

PVH: That’s probably true. Our brain is designed in such a way that we tend to focus on negative things more than we do positive. In an ongoing relationship with another person, one hurtful argument may have much more effect than months of happy co-existence.

Q: One of the recommendations for strengthening the positive within ourselves is to make a concerted effort to notice pleasant encounters: the smile of a friend; a little personal victory. It’s called “taking in the good.”

PVH: It makes a lot of sense. The more aware we are of the positive, the more it penetrates our brain and offsets any negativity bias.

Q: Wouldn’t it also be important to become more mindful of negative and fear-promoting news?

PVH: Yes. The vast majority of news is negative. I try to stay in touch with what’s happening in the world but I won’t watch a news video clip unless I decide “I really need to know this.”My recommendations in reference to news media are: Scan headlines from a reliable source. Try to read only fact-oriented print media without emotionally charged images.

Q: What do you consider the best way to transcend the brain’s negativity bias?

PVH: Personally, I consider the practice of Kriya Yoga one of the best possible ways. When we do Kriya Yoga for 45 minutes or an hour, we’re focusing on our new aspirational definition and trying to become that. Rather than spending 20 or 30 minutes savoring a positive experience, we’re spending our meditation focusing on a positive new self.

An essential aspect of Kriya Yoga is meditating with devotion. The devotional aspect of Kriya Yoga draws God’s blessings into our efforts to create a positive new self. Devotion puts us on the wavelength of the Divine and magnetizes help from the most powerful force in the universe. Through meditation and devotion, the ego gradually recedes.

Q: What are Paramhansa Yogananda’s recommendations on overcoming the kind of habits and attitudes reflective of a negativity bias?

PVH: His advice boils down to two points: One, to meditate regularly because that’s the most transformational thing we do. Second, to meditate with devotion in order to magnetize the help of both God and guru in this transformational process.

If we look at those living a Kriya Yoga lifestyle, who are not only meditating and practicing Kriya Yoga but are also emphasizing positive attitudes, healthy living with a good diet, controlling the kind of music they listen to, making sure that they interact mainly with people supporting their spiritual search, and trying to deepen their relationship with God — such people are well on the way to transcending the negativity bias.

Q: The literature on the negativity bias suggests that meditation is very helpful for people even without the spiritual or devotional component.

PVH: That’s true. People are realizing that they don’t have to be interested in spiritual matters to become kinder and more harmonious. That’s a very good first step to getting their energy moving in a dynamic way, but to transcend the ego and all the lower structures in the brain, they need to bring in the spiritual and devotional components.

Q: Some spiritual movements that emphasize meditation, chanting, and affirmation, consciously exclude devotion. Can you comment on that?

PVH: You can make spiritual progress following a path that doesn’t include devotion. By serving others in a truly selfless way, for example, you can make a lot of progress. For some people, that’s a much easier way to start the process of changing themselves. But eventually everyone finds that the final spiritual step requires devotion.

Peter Van Houten lives at Ananda Village and is the founder and Medical Director of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village. He frequently writes and lectures on the brain and other “yoga and science” topics.

Related reading: Affirmations for Self-Healing by Swami Kriyananda

How to Accelerate Your Spiritual Growth through Kriya Yoga, CD #1
by Swami Kriyananda (spoken)

Clarity Magazine

Sharing the Teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda