Why negative experiences stick like Velcro® and what to do about it

It all started in the days of our caveman ancestors. According to neuroscientists, the magnetic pull to the negative is a function of the most primitive parts of the human brain. People acutely aware of danger were more likely to stick around long enough to procreate and there’s where the reptilian brain comes in. It is responsible for both our self-preservation instincts and our aggression. Prior to modern times, self-preservation was the name of the game. Back then we needed a strong fear-response to be alert to real and immediate dangers, like the threat of being a lion’s lunch.

“Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro® for negative experiences and Teflon® for positive ones,” says neuroscientist Rick Hanson. In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Hanson states, “Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind.”

Notice the next time you have a wonderful experience. See how it slips away quickly, as though it landed on a Teflon® wall. On the other hand, note when you experience something not-so-wonderful, maybe even dreadful. Rather than slipping away from the mind, it’s more likely, due to the design of our brain, to stick like Velcro® for days, weeks, years, decades. Our brain logs the experience as a source of threat, and works to preserve the self by being hyper-aware of other events that could get us crippled or killed. But in our time, we’re not usually fighting for our lives, protecting ourselves from wild animals and warring tribes. We’re getting pulled over for speeding, or we’re insulted by something someone said, or we’re just plain stressed out from life’s roller coaster ride.

You can do something about it! By building up your reservoir of positive experiences you can change, upgrade, evolve the function of your brain and in so doing, change your life. According to Dr. Hanson, one way to maximize the effect of positive experiences is by making each one last. Savor the experience by keeping your attention on it for up to half a minute, without allowing your mind to jump to something else. This can be as simple as enjoying the food you’re eating or holding gratitude in mind after a wonderful conversation.

I’m well aware of the Velcro®/Teflon® effect on my own life and here’s an example. At my talks I give the attendees an evaluation form for comments – pats and pans – to refine my presentation. I’m very grateful that the reviews are outstanding but every once in awhile there’s one that’s not a rave review, like this one from Portland, Oregon: It was great, a bit slow at times.

Sure, you guessed it! That’s the one my mind clung to. “What did he mean? When was it slow? Did he really mean it was great or did he just put that in to soften the blow?”

Since observing my thoughts is a regular practice, I caught myself. “Hey, wait a minute! Of the last several hundred comments, you got ONE that’s negative. And only slightly negative,” I told myself. “Read the others and savor them.” And so I did. But I have to admit that that one came into my mind for a few seconds from time to time for several days, whereas the others did not.

Yep, our primitive brain is still operating. The good news is that most of us don’t need to operate in survival mode – we just need to remind ourselves to ‘accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.’

Please comment below with ways for handling negative experiences that work for you. You just might change someone’s life. Thanks!

5 Comments so far:
  •   November 2, 2015 - Annie Says:

    Hello Ellen,
    I love to share with you a story written for children by Jon J .Muth in his book zen shorts : The farmer’s Luck

    “There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.One day,his horse ran away.Upon hearing the news,his neighbors came to visit.”Such bad luck,”they said sympathetically.
    “Maybe,”the farmer replied.

    The next morning the horse returned,bringing with it 2 other wild horses.
    “Such good luck,”the neighbors exclaimed.
    “Maybe,”replied the farmer.

    The following day,his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses,was thrown off,and broke his leg.Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
    “Such bad luck,” they said.
    “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

    The day after that,military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war.Seeing that the son ‘s leg was broken,they passed him by.
    “Such good luck!” cried the neigbors.
    “Maybe”,said the farmer.”

  •   November 2, 2015 - Ellen Wood Says:

    Yes, wonderful Zen story. Here’s another that illustrates the point: A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

    The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

    They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

    The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

    The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”

  •   November 2, 2015 - Patricia Says:

    Hi Ellen,
    Again you hit the nail on the head for me at a time I needed it. Talk about sycronicity 🙂 I have spent much time with positive accepting people and really got smacked emotionally by the negative comments from an older neighbour for whom I am and have been on call if she takes a heart turn and has to call ambulance. ?? I finally got the courage to tell her she is not allowed in my home until she can stop critising my decor. This used to eave me so uncertain of my creative abilities which just about everyone else thinks is ‘amazing, clever talented” yet I clung to her comments so your email has explained a lot and freed me up. Kindest kindest wishes Patricia

  •   November 2, 2015 - Ellen Wood Says:

    Big hugs to you, dear Patricia. Thank you for sharing!

  •   November 2, 2015 - Annie Says:

    Thank you Ellen,love the story!

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