Why is it that we can do 100 things right but obsess about the 1 thing that went wrong? Or, why do we ignore the dozens of things the people around us do to be kind but then fuss about the 1 thing they miss? It turns out that, except for one condition (which I’ll share below) human beings are actually wired to be negative.
In his book The Neurobiology of Human Relationships, Pepperdine psychologist, Louis Cozolino, reveals how research shows that the human brain is naturally wired to emphasize the negative more than the positive. Here’s a NYTimes article describing some of this research...
“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass, who co-authored “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” (Penguin 2010). Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.
Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, captured the idea in the title of a journal article he co-authored in 2001, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology. “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he said. “It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals,” in experiments with rats.
BUT, HERE’S THE CATCH
Cozolino notes, however, that there is one critical factor that mediates the brain’s tendency toward negative thinking; connection to other people. Research shows that the degree to which we feel connected to others actually impact brain function. Left alone, our brains are wired to emphasize the negative as a survival mechanism. If I am on my own, I have to be prepared to face every threat. I can’t relax. My survival depends upon it. But if I feel connected to the people around me, that sense of connection to others helps to balance out the brain’s natural tendency to go negative. Connection actually stimulates the brain in a manner that allows me to feel safe. Because I am not alone and I am confident that others are here to help look out for me, I don’t have to pay as close attention to every negative thing. In fact, I can even let some of the negativity go. I can be…(brace yourself) positive, happy, and even content, because I have people who are watching my back. Attachment to others actually provides the nourishment our brains need to–as the old song puts it–accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
CONNECTION. NOT A CROWD
The thing is, it isn’t enough to just have people around me. If my family is little more than a collection of individuals sharing a roof and a data plan, I will not be able to enjoy the benefits that relationship can give to my brain. In fact, I might be more likely to feel negative since I am prone to see all the ways these people could take advantage of me or act in uncaring ways toward me. In order to balance out our brain’s natural tendency to emphasize negative input, I have to actually feel connected to and cared for by the people around me.
CREATED FOR COMMUNION
Pope St John Paul the Great’s asserts that God’s design of the body teaches us important lessons about God’s plan for human happiness and fulfillment. This research is a powerful example. We were created to crave communion in order to have a more balanced, healthy, and positive outlook that enables us to experience life as the gift its meant to be.
It is tempting to think, some days, that we’d be better off if we could get away from everyone and go live on a mountain somewhere, free to do our own thing and think our own thoughts. But, in fact, we are wired to need others to be healthy and fulfilled. The more connected and attached we are to the people who share our lives, the more we feel whole and healthy. It turns out that isn’t the benefits we gain by being connected to the people we love isn’t just a psychological or spiritual reality. It is a neurological one as well.