Break Free from Negativity Bias: 3 Proven Tools to Train Your Dragon

Break Free from Negativity Bias: 3 Proven Tools to Train Your Dragon

I recently had the delight of attending a webinar hosted by Dr. Rick Hanson, a renowned neuropsychologist and bestselling author in the field of mindfulness and neuroscience. The event celebrated the 15th anniversary of "Buddha's Brain", one of my favorite books on mindfulness that has profoundly influenced my understanding of meditation and the brain's capacity for positive change.

One of the webinar participants asked a practical question that I hear often: "How to overcome negativity bias?"

"Since my earliest childhood, my thoughts instinctively go to the negative rather than the positive. When confronted with a new situation or problem, I tend to mistrust rather than trust, catastrophize rather than maintain realistic optimism, and lean towards fear and negativism rather than positivity and happiness," he shared, elaborating on how it affected him.

"I'd like to rewire that neural circuit. What specific processes, exercises, and practices would you suggest for doing that?"

This is such an important and common question that it inspired me to write this article and share key strategies, tools, and techniques studied and suggested by Dr. Hanson and other leading researchers. These methods have helped many, including myself, and you can start using them today.

Take me to:

Understanding the Neurobiology of Negativity Bias

Dr. Hanson explains that our brains are biologically hardwired to keep us safe, a core function that has helped humans survive for thousands of years. Negative bias is a survival mechanism that our evolutionary past has equipped us with. You can actually see it in action in birds and animals - notice how they constantly scan their surroundings for possible threats.

This is why negative events tend to "stick in our minds like Velcro, while positive events slide off like Teflon." But in today's world, this negativity bias can leave us feeling overwhelmed and anxious, ultimately hindering our personal growth and well-being.

However, unlike automatic physiological reactions - think of the classic knee-jerk reflex when the doctor taps your knee - we have a fascinating ability to control our "mind jerks." These are those automatic negative thoughts or self-critical inner talk that hijack your mind faster than you can say "cognitive behavioral therapy." 

Humans have a wonderful superpower: we can train our brains to respond in more beneficial ways, thanks to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This gives us an enormous capacity for positive change.

Urban Yoga photography
Photo by Fela Adebiyi, one of my first yoga teachers and friend

How to change your mind according to Neuroscience

According to Dr. Hanson, “There's a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. The update in modern neuroplasticity says the brain takes its shape literally, physically, in structure and function, from which your mind repeatedly rests upon.”

That means we can manage the mind by deliberately controlling where we place our attention.

Just as the groundbreaking AI research paper "Attention Is All You Need" revolutionized machine learning and AI, neuroscience reveals a similar truth about our own minds: the ability to direct our attention is the key to rewiring our brains.

While AI models use attention mechanisms to process information, we humans possess the remarkable capacity to consciously control our focus. This control is our cognitive superpower, allowing us to reshape existing neural pathways and create new ones that activate brain circuits responsible for happiness, contentment, and joy.

By consistently directing our attention towards positive experiences and encouraging thoughts, we're essentially programming our neural networks for stress resilience and optimism.

This is why meditation, mindfulness and contemplative practices in general are so powerful: they're like fitness tools for our attention muscle.

Urban Yoga photography by Fela
Photo: Urban Yoga by Fela Adebiyi

How Negativity Bias Shapes Our Lives: Examples 

Let's take a look at how brain negativity bias can impact various aspects of our lives:

Relationships

  • Focusing more on conflicts than positive interactions
  • Overlooking small gestures of affection

Work Performance

  • Dwelling on criticism rather than praise
  • Undervaluing achievements and overemphasizing mistakes

Decision-Making

  • Overestimating risks and underestimating potential benefits
  • Getting stuck in analysis-paralysis, hindering progress
  • Perfectionism leading to procrastination or missed opportunities
  • Difficulty in making choices due to fear of making the wrong decision

Mental Health

  • Contributing to anxiety and depression
  • Reinforcing negative self-talk and low self-esteem

Personal Growth

  • Diminishing our potential by making us feel smaller and less visible
  • Hindering growth by keeping us in our comfort zone

Have you considered how negativity bias might have subconsciously limited your potential by steering you towards 'safer' choices?

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like with less negativity bias?

If so, let's explore some powerful self-transforming techniques to overcome negativity bias.

Self-Transforming Techniques to Overcome Negativity Bias

Technique #1: Taking in the Good

One of the simplest yet most effective techniques is to consciously take in positive experiences. First, recognize negativity bias in the present moment and acknowledge it.

For example, when you're considering applying for a new job or a promotion, notice if your inner critic says things like, "I'm not good enough" or "They'll never pick someone like me." This is negativity bias in action, potentially limiting your future.

Pause and say to yourself, "I recognize this as negativity bias. Let me also consider my strengths and past successes." Then, consciously recall times when you've overcome challenges or received praise for your work.

Marinate in the good rather than ruminate in the negative: spend a few minutes each day focusing on pleasant events and allowing them to imprint on your brain. We're installing some serious software upgrades here! 

Write down 3-5 positive experiences of the day: comfortable clean clothes, the smell of fresh coffee, a kind smile of a stranger - anything that brought you joy.

Relive these events in bed before going to sleep. Try to feel it in your body. Not just the memories, for example, that someone gave you a nice hug, but the feeling of receiving a heartfelt hug in your body.

This practice acts as a circuit breaker for negativity bias, gradually rewiring your brain to be more open and receptive to positive experiences. Over time, you may notice more pleasant events and synchronicities in your daily life. It's not magic, it's neuroscience and your conscious effort paying off.

Technique #2: Linking Positive and Negative Experiences

Rick Hanson describes "linking" as a powerful process to heal past wounds that reinforce negativity bias by connecting positive experiences (flowers) with negative ones (weeds) in our minds. This process leverages neuroplasticity, as "neurons that fire together wire together."

By consciously focusing on a positive experience while acknowledging a negative one, you create a new neural connection in the garden of your mind. Over time, the positive experience will weaken the negative one, leaving you feeling more optimistic and resilient.

How to Use the Linking Technique to Overcome Negativity Bias

The linking technique helps associate positive experiences with negative ones, gradually releasing and transforming old hurts.

"By being aware of both experiences at the same time, since neurons that fire together gradually wire together, the positive will associate to the negative, easing it, soothing it, and potentially over time, replacing it." Rick explained at the webinar.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to using this technique effectively:

Identify the Negative Thought

  • Start by recognizing a persistent negative thought or experience. For example, it can be a deep-seated belief that you cannot trust people again because of past betrayals.
  • Keep that thought/experience in the background of your mind.

Bring a positive experience to the foreground of your awareness

  • Think of a specific positive experience that contradicts the negative thought.
  • Keep the positive memory vivid, real and alive in the foreground. For example, recall a time when someone r eliable and supportive was there for you, such as a friend who stood by you during a tough time.

Hold Both Experiences in Awareness

  • Simultaneously hold the positive experience in the foreground of your awareness while allowing the negative material to remain in the background without judgement. 

Acknowledge and Connect

  • Let the positive experience unfold in the foreground of your awareness, immerse in it like a vivid movie on a big screen.
  • Simultaneously, allow it to gently connect with the background echoes and shadows of negative experiences—perhaps memories of people who abandoned you or any lingering fears.
  • Keep these negative elements softly in the background, like a faint whisper behind the main feature.

Feel the Positive Sensations

  • Pay attention to the physical sensations associated with the positive experience. Feel the warmth, comfort, or joy in your body. This helps to reinforce the positive neural pathways.

Repeat Regularly

  • Practice this technique regularly and whenever the fear or negative self-talk arise. Over time, the positive experiences will help soothe and transform the negative belief.

Hanson suggests this process is necessary for healing "80% or more of the negative crud in the basement of the mind."

Technique #3: Cultivating Self-Compassion 

In our toolbox for overcoming negativity bias, Metta Meditation stands out as a simple yet profound technique for cultivating self-compassion. This ancient practice, also known as Loving Kindness Meditation, works by opening the heart and cultivating neural pathways of empathy, compassion, and love.

Metta, which means "loving-kindness" in Pali, involves intentionally sending well-wishes and goodwill towards yourself and others. By regularly practicing Metta, you're not just sending positive thoughts – you're actively strengthening the neural pathways associated with compassion and kindness. 

Loving Kindness Meditation to cultivate compassion

Studies have found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness practice reduces self-criticism, boosts a person’s good feelings, and sense of social connection, I read in Altered Traits, another great book I recommend to everyone curious about the latest science and research on meditation.

"But... how?" one may ask.

The Surprising Power and Wisdom of the Heart

Did you know your heart might have more influence on your brain than you think?

Dr. J. Andrew Armour discovered in 1991 that the heart has its own "little brain," or its own nervous system, composed of approximately 40,000 neurons. This "heart brain" communicates with the brain in multiple ways: neurologically, biochemically, biophysically, and energetically. 

Furthermore, the heart's electrical field is about 60 times greater than the brain's electrical activity, making it the most powerful source of electromagnetic energy in the human body according to research from the HeartMath Institute.

In his book "Into the Magic Shop," neurosurgeon James Doty shares a fascinating insight about the connection between our hearts and minds. He writes:

"[There's] a form of communication that exists between the brain and the heart through the vagus nerve. What research has shown is that the heart sends far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart—and while both the cognitive and emotional systems in the body are intelligent, there are far more neural connections that go from the heart to the brain than the other way around." (Altered Traits

It's no wonder compassion practices like Metta Meditation, which focus on opening the heart, can be so powerful in reshaping our thoughts and perceptions. By cultivating compassion and kindness, we're potentially altering the fundamental conversation between our hearts and minds.

Try this 15-minute version of Loving Kindness meditation from my collection.

Some food for thought: next time you're setting intentions or sending wishes to the Universe, try aligning them and manifesting with your heart.

Remember: when manifesting, the heart's power, use.

Struggling with self compassion? Try The Best Friend Technique! 

Many people find it challenging to offer themselves the same compassion they readily give to others. Our negativity bias can be so strong that it sometimes turns into self-criticism or even self-loathing.

The Dalai Lama was astonished when he learned about this tendency in many Westerners. In a conversation with a meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, he expressed his surprise, noting that he had always assumed people naturally loved themselves. He pointed out that in Tibetan, as well as in classical languages like Pali and Sanskrit, the word for compassion is inclusive of oneself. English, he suggested, needed a new word: self-compassion.

If you find it hard to be compassionate to yourself, try the Best Friend Technique. This practical approach was kindly shared by Ellen Scully, a thought leader in McKinsey's travel practice and volunteer career coach. Ellen originally learned about it from Peter Attia's Outlive.

When you're struggling with self-criticism, ask yourself: "What would I say to my best friend in this situation?" Then, talk to yourself with that same kindness and understanding. It's a simple yet powerful way to shift your perspective and cultivate self-compassion.

Applying Negativity Bias Tools in Real Life

Let's explore some real-life scenarios where you can apply the linking technique to overcome negativity bias, address specific challenges, and build a more positive mindset.

(Re)-Building Trust

If you have experienced betrayal and find it difficult to trust people again, consciously focus on loyal, dependable people in your life while acknowledging past hurts in the background. This helps your brain associate relationships with safety, gradually easing mistrust.

Healing Abandonment Wounds

Childhood experiences of abandonment, abuse, or emotional neglect can have lasting effects on health and well-being later in life, according to multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies. 

To heal these wounds, recall moments of being loved and unconditionally accepted by others. Visualize positive experiences:

  • Sharing comfortable silence with someone, feeling at home in their presence without the need for words
  • Basking in the warmth of a friend's embrace
  • Enjoying a home-cooked meal when you were sick
  • Feeling the joy of your pet greeting you

As you bring these moments to your mind's eye, allow yourself to fully relive the experiences. What did you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel? Immerse yourself in the sensations, letting them resonate through your body.

This practice rewires your brain to expect love, support, and connection, rather than anticipating the pain of abandonment.

Soothing Anxiety

Feeling anxious? Notice the details of your safe environment, the room you’re in, the sounds around you, any smells or physical sensations you can name. Remind yourself that you are basically okay right now.

Bring attention to feelings of safety and calm in the present moment while allowing the memories of anxious experiences to stay in the background.

This helps your brain recognize the present moment as a calm and secure space.

Overcoming Isolation and Loneliness

Feeling alone? Here are some of our favorite antidotes to isolation that have proven helpful in reconnecting with your sense of belonging.

Mindful Connection

While acknowledging feelings of loneliness in the background, focus on moments of connection, even through indirect means like phone calls, texts or social media. This helps rewire your brain to recognize existing bonds.

Vision Boards & Photo Proof

When you're feeling blue and your inner critique tells you "nobody loves me," it's crucial to recognize this as a negativity bias at work.

Create a "connection collage" or a Pinterest board with photos of friends and family, shared positive memories with loved ones. This visual reminder overrides false narratives and evokes the sense of love and belonging, reinforcing the reality of your connections.

Build Your Love Bank

  • Write down 5-10 experiences when you felt joy of connection with others. Best to use a dedicated page in a journal so it is easy to get back to it.
  • Let these feelings sink in. Where do you feel them in your body?
  • "Marinate" in these sensations, as Dr. Rick Hanson suggests.
  • Add new positive experiences as investment assets to your "Love Bank" regularly, noting physical sensations to strengthen neural connections associated with well-being.
  • Every time loneliness strikes, turn to your Love Bank portfolio. This practice grounds you in reality, reminding you of the real wealth of genuine connections in your life and the many people who truly care about you.
  • Add the power of language with affirmations like, "I've got through all that, I'm still here, and many people love me." (Inspired by "Buddha's Brain" by Rick Hanson)

Getting Unstuck & Fueling Your Personal Growth

When it comes to personal development, our negativity bias often holds us back. We tend to fixate on our shortcomings and overlook our progress. Here's how to apply the linking technique to fuel your growth:

  • Celebrate small wins and savor daily victories (e.g., made bed - win! Morning meditation - check!)
  • Fuel Growth with Setbacks: remember a time when you felt successful, confident and accomplished. Let is stay in your mental spotlight while allowing setbacks linger in shadows.
  • Evoke the feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment in your body, notice your physical sensations of success. This helps you build a growth mindset of viewing challenges as opportunities for growth.
Motivational quotes - Amy Vora

 

How often should you practice Linking

Consistency is key. To practice linking effectively, spend about 5 minutes a day on this practice. By committing to this practice, you are not just changing your mind and thoughts; you are transforming your life. 

"The first day you do it, you'll notice a change. Do it for three days in a row, and you'll really notice something. Keep at it for ten days, and other people will start noticing changes in you. Commit to it for 100 days, and you'll change your life,"  Hanson shared in the webinar.

Be patient and persistent, remember healing and growth takes time. With consistent effort, you can gradually cultivate a more positive mindset and free yourself from negativity bias, building a more resilient, happiness-attracting you.

Any single time you do this will make a little difference. And over time, those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain—reshaping it over time, and you with it.

Additional Resources for Brain Training

Book: Dr. Hanson's book "Hardwiring Happiness" explores the HEAL framework and linking technique in more detail (Chapter 4).

Online Course: Dr. Hanson's neuroplasticity training course provides hands-on guidance and offers scholarships for those with financial need: Beat the Brain’s Negativity Bias. 

Mobile App: Is there an app for it? In fact, there is! Hot off the press, launched in June 2024, the Matter Neuroscience app is available on the App Store to help you do more of what makes you feel good with science-backed insights and guidance.

Matter Neuroscience App

 

About the author

Before...

After...

To Your Well-Being! 

Olga Pinn

Ollie is a California-based meditation teacher and mindfulness facilitator with a globally-inspired practice. A former Ecommerce executive, she founded Meditate Mate and co-founded Inward VR, a mindfulness technology startup. Always curious about emerging technologies, Ollie earned an MIT certification in AI and Machine Learning. She enjoys exploring the intersection of ancient wisdom and modern science, finding balance through her daily meditations and catching waves in the Pacific.

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