The brain’s job description is not to make sure that this organism is happy but to make sure that it survives one more day. Let’s imagine our ancestors going hunting. There were three possible outcomes. They would be successful and come back with food, share it with the group and be happy, probably going to sleep with a full belly and laughing around the fire. The second possibility, they come back empty hand. They would go to bed hungry maybe a little grumpy but still alive. The last outcome, they come back with nothing and one or more hunters have been seriously injured or killed during the hunt. This happened frequently when you look at the amount of human bones found that have been fractured. In these days, a fractured bone would often lead to death. The brain has adapted very well to these scenarios and has tried to avoid the third scenario; the death or the fatal injury. The brain has pushed that logic to almost everything we do. It constantly scan for dangers and make sure we pay attention to these threats. We end up what can be called negatively biased. The brain is programmed to ignore beautiful thoughts, events, beautiful moments and pay close attention to negativity.
Neuroscience findings show that the difference between depressed and healthy people depends on how well they can sustain positive emotions as opposed to how much they can feel it. So a depressed person has happy thoughts just like a non depressed one and they have the ability to feel it, this is not what really matters. The difference between these groups relies more on the fact that healthy subjects have the ability to sustain positive emotions (stay with the positive emotion longer) and depressed subject don’t. Technically speaking, if the brain’s prefrontal cortex gives a lot of input to the nucleus accumbens (a region critical for generating a sense of reward) sustain positive emotions will be possible.
Meditation has an impact on increasing the neurological thickness of the prefrontal cortex. This would result in sending stronger input to the ventral striatum and sustaining the sense of reward from a positive emotion. It will diminish this negative bias of the brain and we will start to pay more attention to positive and beautiful things in life not just dangers and fears.
An interesting exercise is proposed by Rick Hanson in his book titled the Buddha’s Brain. He describes it and gives an interesting exercise. It is called Internalizing the Positive.
- Turn positive facts into positive experience. Good things keep happening all around us but we don’t notice them. Try to actively look for good news, particularly the little things in life: sunsets, someone smiling at you, a nice cup of coffee, being alive and capable of breathing normally,…
- Savour the experience by trying to stay with it for 10 to 20 seconds
- Imagine that this experience is entering deeply into your body and your mind. Just as you can feel the sun on your face on a warmth day.
This active method that can start as you hear the alarm before you get out of bed in the morning combined with a more mindful approach to life can change significantly our outlook on life. We can quite rapidly go from a bit of a negative/depressive view to a much more positive one.