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.
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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.