The Neuroscience of Negativity (if you cant say anything nice…)

Last night I was at happy hour with a group of friends, there were nine of us total, carrying on a myriad of different conversations over yummy food and good drinks at our favorite Irish pub. By the end of the night, our numbers had whittled down to four. We were telling stories and venting a bit to one another when a man walked by our table and started talking to us. When he got us all to smile he clinked glasses and went on his way. When he came back through about fifteen minutes later he made a comment along the lines of ‘now what do I want to see?’ until we were all laughing and giving him the smile he asked for. While it was a fairly insignificant moment, it got me thinking about perception that others receive of us. It is all too common for us to spend a night gossiping and sharing stories of our weekly frustrations while laughing over a few drinks, and while I have never actually viewed this activity in a negative way (after all, we are usually laughing and making jokes the entire time), I couldn’t help but stop and think about the underlying stories: mainly, the weekly frustrations that life will bring and how we deal with those.

I generally try to be a positive person; I do my best to put on an optimistic front even when I don’t feel it inside because worrying others wont do anyone any good. Some days I have the fire burning inside already and nothing is going to get in the way of my good mood; but other days I have to remind myself, I have to build myself up to it. I’ve noticed that I have a harder time doing this with those that I am close to. I vent, I complain, I occasionally gossip- I do a lot of things that I’m not necessarily proud of. I fall into the negativity pit and all of the typical reasoning that comes with it. I tell myself that getting these negative feelings off of my chest will make me feel better. But, as it turns out, that is a bit of flawed thinking on my part. The truth is, the only thing that negative thinking will get you is more negative thinking. Don’t believe me? Just ask science.

Let me get my lab coat on (I don’t know why you want me to do this, I’m really not qualified to be teaching this class. Although last year I did read ‘Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep’- neuroscience explained through the afflictions of the zombie-kind). But, I’m dressed for the part and I wear glasses- that must make me a reputable teacher. Lesson one of neuroscience: synapses that fire together wire together. Let’s start off by explaining how this whole process works; now, the brain is a complicated creation that I wont even pretend to understand. So this overview isn’t going to be particularly technical.

Nerve cells make connections with one another in circuits that we refer to as neural pathways. These nerve cells, however, never actually touch, they just get very close together. If you have siblings, then the best example of this is when you would sit in the back of the car and they would hover their finger right over your face saying ‘but I’m not touching you’ whenever you tried to shoo them away. Unless that was just my childhood? Anyway, back to the lesson: So you have two very close neurons that cannot make physical contact. So how to they pass messages from one to the other?  (Fifty points to Gryffindor if you get it right before reading ahead). Answer: Through the synapse! Ah sure, but what the heck is that? Well, I’m glad you asked. A synapse is a structure that allows one neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron over a gap known as the synaptic cleft. They are vitally important, essentially acting as the pathway for your thoughts. Now, the body is an amazing example of efficiency. Whenever you have a thought (like you are right now), a synapse will shoot a chemical across the cleft to another synapse (think Spiderman slinging string to the building across the street), which effectively ‘builds a bridge’ that an electrical signal can then cross over. This signal carries the information that is pertinent to your thought. (I don’t know why, but I always picture a super secret FBI agent with a briefcase full of top secret documents.)

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Now, as I said before, the body is nothing if not economical. You see, every time an electric signal gets triggered, the synapses involved start to grow closer together in an effort to make their job easier. Their goal is to decrease the distance that the signal has to pass over to get from Point A to Point B. To keep the FBI analogy; its much easier to transport your top secret information from one room to another, as opposed to hopping in a car and driving across town. Isn’t that amazing? The brain will literally rewire its own circuitry to make it easier for you. It physically changes its internal map to line up the proper synapses together, effectively making it easier for that particular thought to trigger.

To put this in perspective of your daily life: think of some of those recurring habits you have: do you compulsively check your phone or social media? I bet it started with you getting bored and poking on your phone once or twice. But over time this compulsion grew, and pretty soon you are opening it and poking around on Facebook with virtually no thought behind it. You didn’t even realize you were doing it, but you were literally programming yourself to follow these habits. The shorter distance between the synapses makes these recurring thoughts more likely to occur. You are conditioning yourself for specific behaviors and thoughts- and you don’t even know you are doing it. Starts to make a bit more sense, doesn’t it?

This process can be a phenomenal asset- if you use it correctly. When you fall into the trap of bad thinking though; it is a dangerous weapon. You see, when you start thinking negatively or listening to negative speech- your brain is programming itself to follow this trend, those synapses are getting closer together and making it easier for that negative thought to reappear again. These close synapses not only make negative thoughts easier to come by, they also make it more likely for other negative thoughts to just randomly occur throughout your day, like when you are walking down the street without anything in particular on your mind (Scary, isn’t it?). Basically, by sinking into this thought pattern you are changing your personality to a gloomier outlook. As Steven Parton explains, “Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought…the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.” It is literally a race for thoughts.

This is not just an internal dilemma; suddenly it becomes very important who you surround yourself with. Humans are notoriously empathetic creatures (though it doesn’t always seem that way).During our evolution our survival hinged on the connections we could make with others. We are a species that thrive in small groups. What is the easiest way to make a connection? Through shared experiences and emotions. It’s in our wiring; when we see someone in an emotional state- good or bad, our own brains try that feeling on for size; by that, I mean that it tries to imagine what the other person is experiencing. Have you ever watched a video of people laughing? Something so simple- try not to smile yourself when you watch it. The reason why it’s so hard: your brain wants to relate to them, it wants to mirror their emotions to find common ground. How does it delve into this imagined world? Well, it fires those synapses, of course- attempting to emulate what it is seeing in the other person, effectively allowing you to ‘relate’ to them. Ever hear of ‘mob mentality’? Well, this is where that comes from- good or bad, we want to have common ground with other people. This explains the hype we all collectively begin to feel at a concert or sporting event- or the way we vent exhaustively at happy hour with our best friends.

You follow the same thought patterns as those around you; that’s why toxic relationships can be so potent and drag you down so quickly. That is also why you feel so refreshed and energized by that ‘happy friend’ you have who doesn’t seem to be effected by the negativity of life. I have a friend from high school who I only get to see a few times a year because we both live busy lives on opposite sides of the state. But every time I see her, I feel like a better person, I admire her outlook on life, it is contagious. My advice- hold onto these friends, do not lose touch. Find people that you want to be like and embrace their outlook. Look at yourself and decide which person you want to be- do you want people to walk away refreshed because of your attitude, or do you want to complain about the daunting trivialities of your daily life. You have a choice- the brain is an amazing creation; if it is capable of wiring itself one way, it is also capable of going in the other direction.

My fiancé has a trick that he learned a while ago; you write your goals or positive thoughts on a notecard. You read it in the morning when you first wake up and right before you go to bed. You carry it with you in your wallet and read it whenever you need to remind yourself. Why does this work? Because you are actively reminding yourself to think these thoughts, effectively forcing your brain to rewire itself to promote this new way of thinking. It moves those synapses closer together so that it becomes your default thinking, eventually weeding out those negative thoughts you once fought with.

At the end of the day, it is up to you how you will see the world. You get to determine which synapses fire together. You get the colors to shade your world in. Bright or dreary- the world is your canvas. At least now you understand why you may fall into these ruts, and you know how to get out of them. You can also understand why your outlook will not just change overnight. It takes a conscious effort to rewire a new way of thinking. Knowledge is power, as they say. Use it wisely, my friends.

‘Fire Walls’ and Editing Epiphanies

I’ve hit the ‘fire wall’ of the editing stage. And no, I’m not talking about my super not-so-secret computer ninja that fights off all of those pesky viruses that attack my computer from the myriad of research sites I’ve visited (I’m just saying, some don’t seem sketchy until you’ve visited the home page. Then that back button can’t be hit fast enough). No, what I’m talking about is a phenomenon that all writers, nay, all creators, will inevitably face. It’s that phase where you look at your work, read through all of that time and effort, all of the blood, sweat and tears that you put into your project- and you want nothing more than to toss it into a fire pit and light it up. Dance through the ashes wearing nothing but your war paint.

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They say its natural to question the validity of your work, that this stage is all a part of the process. And while I appreciate the sentiment, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to look back on my old projects and attempt to sift through them, to pinpoint the elements that just don’t feel right. I don’t even know where to start. After the past few weeks, I am pretty sure my face will be permanently pinched in this position:

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I will admit, I was discouraged. After all of this time, how could my writing still feel so sub-par? I know what makes a good book, I know what that spark feels like as a reader; so why am I still unable to capture the magic and portray it the way that I want? Or am I just being too hard on myself? I wont know, because I wont let anyone read it until I’ve given it the green light (are you starting to see my never-ending vicious little cycle here?) It wont be good enough until someone can tell me how to make it better, and I will never let them read it until I’ve made it good enough. I am Sisyphus pushing my boulder with pure dedication.

In an effort to keep myself from hitting that delete button, I decided to look at this problem from a new angle. I’ve been working really hard with my writing, attempting to hone my skills and get better. I plug along every day, even when I don’t have it in me. I started putting myself out there and writing this blog- which has done amazing things in terms of discovering my own voice in my work. These projects that I am currently editing: they’re older. In fact, the one I’m in the process of slogging through right now is several years old, it was one of the first full novels that I finished when I got back into my writing. So instead of being frustrated with how sub-par it feels, perhaps I should be proud of how far I have come.

Reading through my old work shows me that all of these miniscule steps I am taking every day are actually paying off. I am making progress and I don’t even realize it. I am able to see where my voice feels forced, where the story doesn’t flow, where the word choice is too stiff. I’m finding elemental issues that I hadn’t noticed on previous revisions. Through my efforts I am becoming a better writer. And while that means that I will have a bit of an uphill battle waiting for me during these editing forays, I cannot forget that they are difficult because my writing levels are surpassing my previous skill set.

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I am not the best writer that I can be, not by a long shot. But I’m getting there. So instead of being frustrated, I am going to be proud. I will open up that old document and tear it apart with gleeful abandon. Because I know that it will be better, because I know that I am better.

Sorry friends, the bonfire is canceled for today (although I am sure I will attempt to re-schedule it in another week or so when I start in on editing the next novel).

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