Your brain has a natural negativity bias which means it constantly looks for and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss much more than something pleasant or neutral. There’s a good reason for this. Your ancestors were much more likely to pass on their genes by remembering a deadly predator’s territory than a sunny napping spot.
But it means your brain is always diligently scanning its environment, keeping an eye out for danger, and slightly slanted towards the negative, for the sake of caution. When the slightest potential for trouble arises or the smallest thing goes wrong, your brain zeroes in on that one thing downplaying all else. If you get a glowing performance review from your boss, you’ll focus on the few constructive criticisms thrown in. Even though a first date goes pretty well, you’ll replay spilling your water at dinner over and over in your head.
Your brain perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive. It recognizes angry faces more quickly. It overestimates threats and underestimates opportunities. It over-learns from bad experiences and under-learns from good ones.
A Depressed Brain Is Even More Negatively Biased
Everyone’s brain is wired to pay more attention to emotional information than neutral. The parts of the brain which direct your attention also influence your emotions and vice versa. Studies have shown that this effect is exaggerated in people with depression. Depressed people were more likely to misinterpret a neutral facial expression as being sad and even when the face showed no expression, their brains added it.
In the real world, this means that depressed people are more likely to think someone is scowling, frowning, or mocking them. A depressed brain sees more hostile, sad faces, attaches more emotional significance to them, and really does live in a darker world which only reinforces the depression.
Studies also show that depressed brains’ amygdala, the fear/emotional control center, stay active longer than people without depression. This means that a depressed brain reacts stronger and fixates longer on emotionally charged information making it harder to remain calm and rational.
Because of the innate stronger response to negative material, every brain experiences what it labels as negative more personally, with deeper feeling, and recalls the memories stronger and more vividly. This means that even a brain that’s not depressed needs a high ratio of positive to negative just to stay balanced. Research shows that the right ratio is three to one on average. For example, you need three nice comments from your partner to counter one not-so-nice one. A depressed brain, which is apt to miss positive encounters in the first place, is likely to need even more.
Some Brains Are Just Naturally More Negative Than Others
Children of depressed parents are at higher risk of developing depression for many reasons, including genetics, early childhood experiences, and learned behaviors. One study showed that daughters of depressed mothers paid more attention to negative emotions and processed them differently. A specific version of a serotonin transporter molecule has been linked with higher chances of developing depression.
One study determined that people with a copy of this gene tend to have brains that pay more attention to negative emotions and less to positive ones making it more inclined to and harder to pull out of depression.
When Your Mood Gets Worse, So Does Your Negativity Bias
In a brain that’s not depressed, being in a bad mood means having a more reactive amygdala which pays more attention to negative events and emotions and notices more sadness in the world. In a depressed brain, this is even more extreme, and a depressed person is more likely to retain unpleasant memories rather than good ones. If that wasn’t bad enough, the happy memories that they do manage to file away are harder to remember.
This mood bias affects our perception of both present and past. Feel-good memories get filtered through your current negativity bias when recalling them so that the once happy times can become dulled and darkened. Your memory isn’t a direct storage and retrieval system, like a computer. Every time you recall a memory, your brain reconstructs it, incorporating and filtering it through who you are at the time of remembering. Hence, memory is an active and ongoing process reflecting your current mental state. (Read more: The Lies Of The Past)
In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb writes:
Having depression is like being tuned into the six o’clock news all the time. If that was all you watched you’d start to think the whole world was full of nothing but political scandals, weather disasters, and horrific crimes. If you could only change the channel, you’d see everything else that’s out there — but you can’t.”
Fortunately, the same mood bias that works to take you down and keep you stuck in doom and gloom can also be utilized to create positive momentum to help you pull out of depression and stay happy and positive.
How do you do this? By making an intentional effort to notice the good that’s around you. That’s how. (Learn how here.)
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