Why Are We So Negative?

Why Are We So Negative?

Do you tend to be negative? My professional experience and research shows me that negativity is the default position of the human psyche, part of the brain’s survival system, which is why it’s so hard to eradicate. Why would our brains make us so negative? The reality is that the brain is hardwired for negativity. Studies of brain development and observations about early traumas support this.

First, let’s look at brain development. To simplify greatly, our right hemisphere deals more than the left with emotions and the gist of sensory experience and pattern recognition, while our left hemisphere deals with language, logic, and problem-solving. Now it turns out that the right hemisphere is more negative than the left; the left hemisphere—to the extent that it does deal with emotions—is more positive than the right.

The left hemisphere orients itself toward positive emotions related to approach, exploration, and connection with others. The right hemisphere, as we have discussed, is oriented toward negative emotions related to withdrawal and self-protection. It is more closely related to the limbic system and to the rest of the body than is the left hemisphere.

Think of emotions as experiences that move us toward or away from something or someone. Emotions are the ways we experience and interpret the impact of our brain networks on our body states. The negative emotions we experience—think fight or flight—are more primitive and basic than our positive emotions. And negative emotions—grounded as they are in the right hemisphere and the primitive amygdala—can even override the more positive and logical left hemisphere when we are threatened. Situations of significant threat or danger can literally render us speechless—the left (verbal) hemisphere shuts down, and the right hemisphere and the amygdala dominate our experience.

The kicker is that in an ironic twist of fate, Mother Nature has seen fit to develop the negative right hemisphere before the more positive left hemisphere develops. Because in typical brain development the right hemisphere comes online first, the infant and toddler experience the world with a negative tinge, and of course has no language or logic with which to understand or correct his early perceptions. Thus, a baseline, a foundation, of negativity is set early in life.

Later, the left hemisphere matures and we develop language and an ability to apply logic to otherwise emotionally driven situations. But the foundation of negativity has already been set in stone. Because so much of early emotional learning is guided by the right hemisphere, negative experiences early in life can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on how we feel about ourselves, our personality structure, and how we tend to experience the world.

The development of our memory system also hardwires us for negativity. To again simplify greatly, we have implicit and explicit memory systems. Implicit corresponds to nonverbal. Think of riding a bicycle. We remember how to do it, but we cannot explain it in words. That’s implicit. Explicit corresponds to verbal. We can remember the name of our fourth-grade teacher or the date we memorized for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The implicit memory system is centered on the amygdala, which learns quickly and crudely about dangers but seems to hold on to them like a steel trap because it deals with threats to existence. The amygdala is for the most part, not plastic; its memories are relatively fixed and rigid. The explicit memory system is based in the hippocampus, which is “plastic,” or changeable, so we can learn new things and forget what is nonessential. The problem is that the explicit system, like the reasoning, left hemisphere, takes longer to develop, leaving the infant once again prone to negatively tinged experiences of the world provided by the earlier-developing amygdala system.

The perceived dangers from early traumas, branded into the more primitive parts of the nervous system, including the amygdala, can last a lifetime. We all wish that love would triumph over fear, but neurobiologically speaking, that’s a tall challenge. The infant and young toddler have only the amygdala memory system active in their brain. So they have the right hemisphere, which tends to interpret things negatively, and they have their only memory system being the amygdala. The amygdala’s steel trap just won’t let go of early traumas.

Later, as language skills begin to develop, young children begin to develop an effective explicit memory system centered on the hippocampus, in which memories can be modified and even forgotten. In fact, full development of the hippocampus likely occurs only in early adulthood. But until they are at least past the toddler stage, the only memory system children have is the amygdala system, which holds on to traumatic memories like the proverbial elephant—never forgetting.

Amen Clinics is the leader in brain SPECT imaging. If you’re ready to take control over your future, call us today at 888-288-9834 or visit our website to schedule an appointment.

Dr. Joseph A. Annibali graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Senatorial Scholar, and from which he received an Honors award for studies in Biological Chemistry. Dr. Annibali is the Chief Psychiatrist at Amen Clinics Washington DC.  Author of Reclaim Your Brain—How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Back Under Control.


  1. How then do you effectively retrain thought processes?

    Comment by Anthony Thomsen — June 3, 2016 @ 2:49 PM

  2. I’m interested in a response to the question that Anthony Thompsen proposed. Anyone?

    Comment by Dawn — June 3, 2016 @ 4:04 PM

  3. I am going to be 55 years old this year and for myself I am looking at the big picture of things. I believe that I AM a CHILD OF GOD and therefore I will get to heaven. If I think that I am part of this robotic society of man-made world owned by a government full of lunatics whom we somehow get to pay with or without our permission from busting our asses trying to stay alive then so be it. However, I got over that. Now I AM a CHILD OF GOD. To retrain a brain means looking way outside the scope of man and his knowledge and sticking with the book from our Heavenly Father whom I call Pops! Others call him Higher Power,etc. Whatever works for you stick with it. I actually quit driving now and just own an id card. I might even switch back to my maiden name. Who care? There was no mention of a marriage contract in the bible was there? Never did like school either. Bullying was all I received, that and eating crap food. Now I choose to be a temple for JESUS to reside/live in and I am much better off for that. I probably eat healthier then even those who believe by man made thought processes that they eat healthier. All a matter of a thought process. One thought at a time. That is it! No tests, nothing. Just one thought at a time. It is lot more healthier that a way.

    Comment by Joan Ankrom — June 3, 2016 @ 4:31 PM

  4. I act too hopeful, positive, and determined, and this sets me up for big falls when I believe too much in the goodness of others. Then, in the end, everyone plays blame the victims. So, it is a trap to be positive, really. Sorry for the negativity.

    Comment by Sandi1951 — June 3, 2016 @ 4:38 PM

  5. If one had nothing to hope for, one would be lost. Great children of god failed at things but did not let other people’s thoughts get into their mindset. God asked them to go into battle and what the heck if I actually hear God tell me to go into battle then I am going to do it. Now that does not mean start a war in our day and age with guns and such that means use your mind to fight the battle of evil thoughts of someone else’s trap. You sound like you must first learn about yourself and your own thoughts pertaining to your body. How much do you love yourself? God said he loved you before anyone else did. That means a heck of a lot more than people can ever say or mean. God is love and we come from love. To learn to love him back properly means to focus completely on ourselves first. To heck with trying to listen to what everything thinks they know. You have more inside of your brain then you think you do if you are chatting with me. And never, ever say your sorry. I learned that first hand off of a really good bunch of counselors! Perhaps it is the crowd of big people you hang around with. Change your scenery, change your outlook. GOD made a big area for you to browse around in. Everyone can be your so called family or they can be your brother or sister in JESUS CHRIST! Interesting choice, just believe in yourself and watch your world change!

    Comment by Joan Ankrom — June 3, 2016 @ 4:51 PM

  6. Something you said Joan has brought to mind the scripture which reveals Almighty God’s name. Pops is a title like Dad Please check out your bible at Psalm 83:18, or Exodus 3:15 in the Byington, American Standard Version, King James Version of the bibles and others you will come to see God’s name is Jehovah. In many Bible’s Jehovah God’s name has been replaced by Lord (capital L) It is important we know and use God’s name. How can one have a relationship with a person and not know their name? Even Jesus (our exemplar) at John 17:25,26 said he came to make known his Father’s NAME. If it is important to Jesus it is important to any Christian………..A wonderful worldwide website to peruse is jw.org

    Comment by Gilly — June 3, 2016 @ 5:31 PM

  7. My sista!!! Go Gilly! You’re the first time I’ve ever responded to a comment on the Internet cuz I’m a Silent Blog Browser but when I saw a fearless fellow worker and witness: YOU’RE FAMILY!!!! I couldn’t help it. You made my day. I’ll meet you in Paradise!

    ….nevermind that you’ll probably never see this comment but hey, one of us will hehe 😀 Continue to stand up for Jehovah’s name….and look fwd to the time when our brains WILL actually work as He intended, regardless of fancy doctor discoveries!

    Comment by JW.Org — June 3, 2016 @ 7:26 PM

  8. You just let the thoughts go…. imagine you are in a train and you see things are moving behind the window… let me know if it didn’t make sense. E

    Comment by Eugenia Medynskaya — June 3, 2016 @ 9:13 PM

  9. it’s the way we decide to keep looking at things. personally, I was raised by negative parents and family but I was never negative because seeing this and feeling the enrgy as a child and teen was unpleasant. so, now the answer i’m trying to figure out is how did I turn out the complete opposite of my family? and especially my cousins that are my age that have turned out just like their parents and the rest of the family. Maybe because as a child I was told that I can be and do anything that I want and I just have to learn? but this type of learning was not taught nor enforced, which is going by learning to understand, understanding in order to do, and doing in order to get effective and positive results. creating and not waiting. and most importantly (and because of my lack of knowledge growing up) I went by my intuition/ feeling. and growing up was focused on how to understand what it is i’m feeling whether a feeling about a person or a situation, ect. and even after a decade of depression and severe drug addiction, and getting out without the help of medical professionals (all based on treating with meds and further treatment was being around people that identified with the problem rather than teaching us how to solve the problem) which is another thing that has taught me that much more. If a person is consistently around people that also think negatively, such as everything is impossible and continues with these types of people then of course a persons mind set will be set this way. But surrounding yourself with the complete opposite many people get scared because they’ll feel like a nobody around these types, their ego starts to come up, from what I’ve seen and been observing in people. Then there are the types that aren’t afraid because they really do want to learn, but these types don’t come around as much. There is so much more to it. It’s what is referred to as the “learned helplessness” theory.

    Comment by Ania — June 3, 2016 @ 9:26 PM

  10. how have you learned to not achieve effective and positive results? what type of people do you surround yourself with?Do you repress, suppress, and force yourself to do things? These all lead to failed attempts and not living to our full potential because we’re not actually attempting to understand (understanding only on a logical and rational level) which can’t really lead to a truly happy and healthy life.

    Comment by Ania — June 3, 2016 @ 9:37 PM

  11. That’s why we should learn from our mistakes, but understand, look at “what could I have done differently?” Keep learning and you will get there. Never trust a person you don’t know, just observe, learn, experience, and this is how we learn. Nothing is impossible, we just make it impossible because of our ignorance and ego’s.

    Comment by Ania — June 3, 2016 @ 9:45 PM

  12. if I had to take a wild guess, it’s because we are really becoming so disconnected from ourselves, as cheesy as this may sound. Rather than solving problems we identify with them. Or we deny that we have problems because of our ego’s coming up, which all creates negative thinking. A deep lack of understanding. Being taught to JUST think logically and rationally, which is crucial…to an extent but you cannot live a fulfilled life soley based on this type of thinking. It’s just as Einstein said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the faithful servant and has forgotten the sacred gift”. Of course people will think negatively because these are things that you just cannot rationalize and when you can’t you’ll think it’s impossible and/or never achieve the effective and positive results, and if a person never experiences effective and positive results they will believe nothing is possible. I know when I was being taught this way while battling addiction I was getting nowhere and had a gut feeling that this is so wrong and I’m going to go nowhere, just 1 example.

    Comment by Ania — June 3, 2016 @ 10:05 PM

  13. By training your awareness.

    Comment by M. Cellio — June 4, 2016 @ 4:08 AM

  14. Meditation moves ones awareness more towards the upper mind, otherwise we are in survival mode. Spirituality uses different vocabulary than science as the awareness is intuitive opposed to factual. Factual or science is only about 10 to 20% of what our awareness sees and understands. We can’t put into words what is real for us.

    Comment by easyout — June 4, 2016 @ 6:31 AM

  15. The only way to retrain the nuero pathways is to start consciously replacing negative thoughts with positive ones by what you read, listen to and say to yourself. 2000 neurons in your conscious brain are competing with 4 billion neurons in your sub-conscience or limbic brain. A good place to start understanding the process is the book “The Ant and the Elephant”.

    Comment by Gailyn J Cornell — June 4, 2016 @ 9:50 AM

  16. I believe God also built or wired our brains to recreate new constructs and correct old faulty negative thought patterns. It takes work breaking up the strong emotional pattern and allowing that which is healthy, benevolent, and wise to arise, but that is the ground of our being…

    Comment by Catherine Swan Reimer — June 4, 2016 @ 11:00 AM

  17. I have to agree with you Sandi. It’s society as a whole today. We really have lost touch with our human side and why we are headed towards a “Terminator/Machine” world of war, control, destruction and corruption, etc.

    Comment by Michael Harris — June 4, 2016 @ 2:18 PM

  18. And to all in the spirit lifestyle, religion is one big bad thing. Religion is “man enslaving man”… It’s slavery at the highest level. If one is religious, one is not free of mind or body. The Shaolin Monks have known this for tens of thousands of years. They are the most in touch beings on earth, with their minds, bodies and with the universe. Not said.

    Comment by Michael Harris — June 4, 2016 @ 2:23 PM

  19. Well said Ania. Simple but direct.

    Comment by Michael Harris — June 4, 2016 @ 2:24 PM

  20. If you are an actualized feeling person, you almost have to shut down due to trauma. It is horrible what people do to each other globally and personally. In an act of faith and hope, I had opened my door to others in order to create a community of like-minded people wanting to built a better life outside the system of greed and exploitation, only to find predators and parasites — even psychopaths — at my door. We can blame the victims all we want, but please, get real.

    Comment by Sandi1951 — June 4, 2016 @ 2:30 PM

  21. Good article but…solutions?

    Comment by Sid Mehta — June 4, 2016 @ 11:23 PM

  22. If I’m not mistaken this is a non-religious platform; can we please respect this? Certainly you have other places to discuss your beliefs. It’s wonderful that some people are able to utlize religion to override fear and negative thoughts; for this religion can be powerful and positive. But we need not quote a book as the only truth that exists to people who are far more open minded. A suggestion to read what you have found as your truth (like others have above) is far more powerful.

    Comment by Heather NOwen — June 5, 2016 @ 7:50 AM

  23. I like your technique!

    Comment by Heather NOwen — June 5, 2016 @ 7:51 AM

  24. Request respected 🙂 But even the most secular and athiest of thinkers can’t help but speak of what discoveries excite and awe them: it is the joy of human learning; we have a drive to share what we find life-changing. To be “open-minded” is to consider–even if only briefly–all angles of a subject. And no: no one is “proselytizing”, only doing the exact same thing all people who post are doing: commenting, thinking, exploring ideas, sharing. That is all. …I think it’s going to be an inescapable part of internet blogs; thousands of opinions where naturally, not all will agree. 🙂

    Comment by JW.Org — June 5, 2016 @ 8:16 AM

  25. That was really interesting. Just reading about this seems to rewire my negative thought process into more positive ones by strengthening my logic (in my left hemisphere) to downplay my irrational fears. Knowledge is power!

    Comment by Ata Rahmani — June 5, 2016 @ 7:04 PM

  26. I believe its more about engaging your ‘logical’ brain to make sense of negative experiences in order for you to take the ‘trapped’ info in your amygdala and make sense of it. For example, lets say you are looking at your phone while in your car. You pull out in traffic, not paying full attention and you get into a car accident. Car accident is negative. Engaging your left brain to ‘make sense’ of the experience would lead you to the conclusion that you don’t need to look at your phone in the car again. Now, you have taken a negative experience and processed it into memory networks that allow you to use the information to understand what went wrong, what not to do and not make the mistake again. This is a higher brain function. Since young children can not use abstract thought process they are not able to do this. In other words, applying logic to negative thought process to understand the lessons or meaning of them. But first you must identify the ANT’s (automatic negative thoughts) we have. Cognitive distortions have been discussed for years but Dr. Amen simplified them, making it easier to understand them…in my opinion. It’s all about learning to use your logical brain to challenge the negative thoughts. There is always something positive that comes out of a negative experience.

    Comment by Stephanie Davidson — June 6, 2016 @ 5:19 AM

  27. I would have to disagree with this approach. As intelligent beings, we have a core need for justification and explanation for the purpose of learning. To “just let the thought go” would be to disassociate with a fundamental working of our psyche. Understanding comes from dissecting and studying the thought process, thereby yielding the ability to detach the fear (negative) response from the incident/thought and safely store the memory as a negative instance that taught something by which to shape future happenings. If one never takes the time to study what is going on in their brain, when it is occurring, what the negative outcome will be if left unaddressed, how will they ever progress. True, negativity is nothing to dwell on but look upon and ask the question, “Why?” so as to be able to solve the issue and thereby, bring about change.

    Comment by Nancy Ross — June 6, 2016 @ 5:55 AM

  28. don’t consider any of those concepts to be valid in the first place

    there’s a wide range of information that one can indulge in that would lay the pathway for coming to this realization , i was already of this mind set before having seen any of this stuff , but having seen it i now know how to articulate these ideas using language , would be far to long and complex for me to explain here in a comment though…..

    simply for myself though , i don’t think ‘positively/negatively’ , i observe and think about the effects of the observed and if that’s a beneficiary or detriment to what i want….

    Comment by iamli3 — June 6, 2016 @ 1:31 PM

  29. Ah geez…

    Comment by I Flatus — August 9, 2017 @ 7:21 PM

  30. How do we retrain your thought process?
    I am working on this. I reflect often, try to understand what and why if the thought or action. Meditation helps. It clears out the trash of the days maneuvering through experiences with negative people, hardships etc…
    The best process for me is to understand what I have control over and what I don’t. Working within that framework. If I can do something about it, I try. If it is beyond my help, I work on letting it go.

    Comment by Catherine Ufer — February 5, 2018 @ 6:54 AM

  31. So… would damage to the left frontal lobe possibly even lessen the positive thoughts, allowing the negative ones from the right side to be more prominent and overriding?

    I’m not looking for excuses, just understanding of what my brain injury may have done. My accident and severe concussion was quite some time ago, but this kinda seems to explain the negativity with which I still struggle.

    Comment by Kelley — February 5, 2018 @ 9:39 AM

  32. During the nine months of pregnancy. Can the mother’s thoughts and behavior play a role in the negativity on the right hemisphere? What if, the mother had few thoughts and the thought she did get were good, positive thought and she hasn’t any worries or concerns or accepts all of life. She doesn’t watch tv, listen to negative conversations, thinks only about good things. Imagine, a nun, giving birth to a child. Would that child’s left hemisphere be the dominant hemisphere?
    Of all the adults in America, doctors, lawyers, neurologist, “you” who will read this, every adult. Who lives a life without any negative form being in their life? Do you complain about anything? How about politics, what are you dislikes, what upsets you, do you watch tv, the news,…etc? Its my opinion that there isn’t one adult in America who is living in a state of neutral to positive state. Thus, this negativity is considered to be the norm and so in fact, it may very well be the other way around that the left hemisphere should be the dominant hemisphere.
    After a near drowning at age six, my environment was free of negativity. The next six years, I lived in a state that was neutral, what I saw around were act of productivity. There was no tv, no cartoons, no meanness from older siblings, no music, nothing said or read that was bad, everything was good to pleasant. My time would be spent in nature, on a farm or on a ranch.
    At age 13, my education started, so, did my education on negativity-tv, movies, reading books, friends, friend’s parents, teachers, events that took place in town. I was now out of a healthy setting and now in a not so healthy setting, I begin to change, I was slowly becoming like those around me. Thankfully, I had something to keep me from totally becoming like those around me. I couldn’t let any thing go. My mind, brain couldn’t hold on to what just happened to me or around me.
    Throughout my life, my left hemisphere was the dominant hemisphere. It wasn’t until, I got into my 40s that my right hemisphere became the dominant one. I believe we have it all mixed up. For example, the fight or flight mechanism, is a condition that evolved over 100s of 1000s of years due to the violence, fighting, civil unrest that has been going on for 100s of 1000s of years.
    How I lived the first 27 years of my life should be how human beings should live. In this state there is no fear, or judging of anything, right or wrong. We use the left hemisphere more than the right, look around you, can you find anything that isn’t creation. Look at every action, that too is a creation. We are problems solvers by use of the left hemisphere. There are no problems in the world. There are no wrongs in the world. When, we can see what we are to do. We will understand how to live.
    As long as research lives like the people they are studying. They will not be able to connect the dots, because, they too can’t identify with the underlying issues.

    Comment by Rusty Covey — November 13, 2019 @ 7:25 AM

  33. I have spent a number of years in academic social science research and my experience is that many people have a critical/logical mindset and are simultaneously pessimistic. So I am wondering that might fit into this argument.

    Comment by András Novoszáth — April 25, 2020 @ 10:04 AM

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