Why is it that you can’t forget a mistake you made at work five years ago? Or that one comment from the past that still gets under your skin? Despite the fact that the good far outweighs the bad in most of our lives, there’s an effect working behind the scenes that make us focus on negativity.
Scientists are calling this inbuilt preference for negative thoughts “negativity bias.”
Examples of negativity bias
- Resistance to trying new things that could have a positive outcome
- Assuming the worst-case-scenario with every setback
- Repeating fixed thoughts and ideas about the world to ourselves
Preferring negative thoughts isn’t about personality or temperament either. Researchers have found through studying MRI images that the brain lights up and responds more to negative stimuli than positive, a nod to our survival instinct.
And while that may have helped us evade danger in the past, negativity bias is most likely a force that’s tanking our creativity.
Creativity happens when we forget what we already know.
Creativity requires setting aside ways of thinking that we’ve already tried. And so it’s no accident that many creatives have their best ideas while in the shower or shortly before falling asleep. At times when the brain is at rest and not actively problem solving, norepinephrine levels temporarily drop. Norepinephrine is the hormone responsible for helping us retrieve long-term memories. Researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud made this discovery by performing brain imagery scans on jazz musicians:
“While the musicians made spontaneous compositions, several higher brain functions in the prefrontal cortex were suppressed. This part of the brain is associated with conscious control as well as self-monitoring.”
The connection between prefrontal cortex suppression and creativity means that our best work arises when we’re not entirely in the driver’s seat, a state of being that negativity bias actively resists.
Creativity happens when the “inner critic” is silent.
There’s no room for trying new things when we’re already judging the outcome. Creativity is a shy animal: it won’t come out when there’s open hostility to its presence. Negativity bias is a threat to creativity because it demands the comfort of security and predetermined outcomes. It defies reinvention and risk-taking because it is inherently security seeking.
If you’re blocking out some time on your schedule to get creative, start by examining your own negative thoughts toward the task at hand and dismiss them consciously, one by one. This isn’t about “thinking happy thoughts” but replacing adverse outcomes with equally possible positive ones. After all, why does the dark side always have to win? For every negative, list at least one thing that could go right to achieve more mental balance.
Creativity happens when we find a new story to tell ourselves.
Short-circuiting negativity bias requires that we stop implicitly trusting the story we tell ourselves. Though it feels safe and familiar, it isn’t always
true. Creativity stems from places of mindfulness, where we become detached observers of ourselves in the world and quiet the mental chatter, or at
least sit in the background without a need to comment or critique our thoughts.
The practice of stillness or prayer quiets the amygdala, the alert center of the brain, and allows other thoughts to surface.
Scientific studies on mindfulness are showing results that participant’s brain structure has changed in a matter of eight weeks of consistent mindfulness practice, shrinking the amygdala and thickening the cerebral cortex in areas responsible for emotional connection and observation.
Turning down the brain’s anxiety might be one way our creative muse returns to us when there is less chaos and downward spiral messaging. Plumbing the depths of our creativity requires that we understand the immense power of negativity in our lives and how to dismiss it for greater creative rewards.
To your excellence in attaining more creativity and less negativity,