Why is it so Easy to be so Negative?

To understand why it is so easy to be so negative we have to travel back about 2 million years.

I mean, we don’t really have to, but I’m a dork when it comes to archeology and ancient history. Actually, let’s stop at 800,000 years ago, because that is around the time that hearths were invented.

That’s crazy right? Something we take for granted like a hearth for fire, and actual fire itself were once branch new technologies.

Image Credit T.P.S. Dave

Okay sorry that was one of my fascination rabbit trails I go down. But anyway we’ll stop at 800,00 years ago because I thought it would be cool to start with a hunter-gatherer band sitting around a fire at night.

So here we go: It’s night, and there is a band of hunter-gatherers sitting around a fire. (Told you that was a cool start!)

Tonight, the talk is about the hunt in the morning. They work diligently on their tools. They make spear tips, knives, and hand axes by flacking off pieces of rock until they become razor sharp.

Photo credit: E.D. White

Another quick sidetone. I took a class called experimental archeology where we learned how to make tools out of rocks. Those rock flakes could take meat right off the bone!

They sat around the fire preparing for the hunt, eating and socializing. They learned that survival was much easier with cooperation. That is why socialization is very important for our well being today. That survival lesson of cooperation became so engrained for such a long period of time that as our brain continued to evolve, we now all have an innate need for connection with others.

That is important to understand. As we grew as a species from about 2 million years ago to today we acquired certain traits that were extremely important for survival.

In his book The Time Paradox, Phil Lombardo, of the Stamford Prison Experiment, explained a normal stress response. If we look at zebras on the African Savannah they pretty much just relax and eat grass. From time to time a predator will come along and the zebra’s stress response will kick in with a message of, “Haul ass!”

Which the zebra promptly does. After a minute or so, the danger is over because the zebras escaped or the predator made a kill. The herd then goes back to grazing. Lombardo says, “Zebras have an acute stress response every now and then.” He goes on to say, “that we humans evolved to avoid threats, just as the zebra does.”

Basically we are motivated to move away from pain and towards pleasure, or what that old dude Freud called the pain pleasure principle.

Okay, so back to our band of hunter-gatherers. As they lay their heads back to get some sleep, they quietly think about the next day, as we all do, running through possible scenarios of what can happen and should happen. The hunters minds run constant mini-movies of the hunt: what they nee do to, what could go wrong, what went wrong in the past, and all other types of scenarios.

The next morning they wake up, have breakfast and prepare for the day. The women go off to gather food and hunt small game. They constantly scan their surroundings, looking for the slightest movement in the tall grass that might indicate a hiding predator. They watch the trail and paths for snakes. The hunters move in the same way constantly scanning their environment for any sign of trouble. Their minds running scenario after scenario working to keep them safe. Hunting and gathering food is a useless exercise if you become food yourself.

Here is a little fascination side track. If we jump 430,000 years into the future from our 800,000 year old group of hunter-gatherers, we find another group sitting around a fire in Spain. They faced all the same dangers as our older group with the leading causes of death to be accidents, predators and sickness. However with our new group we have the oldest case of MURDER (Insert Law and Order Dun Dun noise here).

In a cave called Sima de los Huesos or “Pit of Bones” they found bone fragments from about 28 individuals. One such skull had injuries that appeared to be caused by being hit over the head with a blunt object. Researchers believe this appears to be the first case of murder ever discovered.

Image Credit: Craters

Besides boring everyone to death, what does this all mean for us?

This means our minds evolved to be motivated and driven to move towards pleasure and away from pain, BUT, it was much more important for our ancient ancestors survival to focus on the bad, or the negative experiences.

In Dr. Richard Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, he likes the pain to negativity and the pleasure to positivity. He explains that it was more important to focus on the dangers of their surroundings than it was to focus on the food itself.

If they did not find food in the immediate areas, they knew that they could walk a ways off and find more. However, if they were not focused on the bad that may happen, and they missed something important, they could die. Over time our brains became experts at picking up anything and everything that could threaten our survival.

Dr. Hanson explains, “it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival.” He goes on to say, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

Our brains detect negative experiences faster and store it much more efficiently than positive experiences, and Hanson explains that even when we get over a negative experience, “it still leaves an indelible trace in your brain. That residue likes waiting, ready to reactivate if you ever encounter a fear-provoking event like the previous one.”

Basically our brains are biased towards negativity, because negativity ensured our survival.

The problem we have today, though, as Phil Lombardo says, “instead of periodic physical threats, like predators, we humans are faced with continual psychological threats…” He finishes by saying, “Although the types of threats that we face have changed our biological responses to them remain the same.”

This means when our minds go negative, when it tells us we’re depressed, angry, anxious, or any of those emotions, it is actually working perfectly and trying to keep you protected.

This puts the power back in our hands. When we allow our thoughts to run free range, like a herd of cattle wandering the fields, it goes negative and dark. But when we exercise some control over our mind we can learn to train our minds into a positive place.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in toxic positivity. I’m not about to tell someone who just went through something horrific to look on the bright side. But neither do I believe in demonizing emotional states that we should be extremely grateful for, then turning them into a disorder.

I believe we need to learn to master our minds, so we can use the entire spectrum of emotions we have been given. And we need to learn to live in those emotional states that bring power into our lives instead of the ones that give power away.

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