Three simple steps can create a positive lasting memory

Explore the negativity bias inherent in the human brain and how to reprogram your brain through mindfulness.

Have you ever wondered why we always seem to remember negative events? You may have had 20 compliments about wearing a particular color, but the one comment that stands out in your mind is when your sister-in-law mentioned, “Maybe that color sweater isn’t your best choice for your interview.” It is not uncommon for us to emphasize the negative in a situation and downplay the positive. The human brain is actually wired to respond and remember negative events more deeply than positive events. Out of tens of thousands of thoughts we have each day, nearly 80 percent of them are negative.

Our ancestors used this bias toward the negative in order to survive. Consider the perils that confronted the caveman as he left his home each day to forage for food for his family. His day was filled with a myriad of things that could jeopardize his life and limb.

Our lives today are not quite as perilous, but our brains continue to mirror that of our caveman ancestor. Consider again the relative who questioned the color choice of your sweater. Every time you put on the sweater in question, you wonder if maybe this isn’t the color for you or if your fashion judgement isn’t up to par.

In the book “Buddha’s Brain,” author and neuropsychologist Rick Hanson discusses a negative bias that “generates an unpleasant background of anxiety” in our lives. When our brain continually reminds us of past failures, or a perceived failure, it can negate our current abilities. “Maybe my fashion sense isn’t that great”. It can also give undue attention to potential obstacles. “I’m not sure any more about how I should look to impress a future boss.”

Hanson suggests three simple ways to encourage positive experiences and make them a permanent piece of your being.

  1. Turn simple positive daily facts into positive experiences. Capture the small, good things that you feel, see and do into your awareness; soak them up and give them the attention they deserve. Notice the way the air feels on your face as you walk out of your door for work. Stop to inhale the smell of your coffee brewing in the morning. Pay attention to a simple compliment; remind yourself of what was said and what it means to you.
  2. Drink in positive experiences to the fullest. Hold on to each experience and commit it to memory; take a few seconds to think about how it makes you feel. What other memories does the moment conjure up? Maybe you can picture your mother as she prepared her morning coffee. Perhaps you saw a flower that resembled a bouquet you received years ago. A memory as simple as one flower can remind you of a loved one who gave you flowers. The purpose behind this second step is to hold each experience in your memory so it doesn’t get lost in all of the other fleeting thoughts you have each day.
  3. Soak in the experience as if it is a special treasure, a gift that fills your soul. Take a deep breath, inhale and absorb all of the sensations that accompany the experience. How does it smell, look, sound and feel? Relax and let the experience become part of you. Each time you recall your treasure, you strengthen key neural circuits like building a muscle in the gym.

Reprogramming your brain to defer to positive thoughts can be accomplishing through a practice of mindful awareness. Michigan State University Extension, in cooperation with West Virginia University Extension, explores a wide range of mindfulness practices in the Stress Less with Mindfulness class series.

For more on information caregiving or family issues that affect you, visit the MSU Extension and eXtension websites.

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