The virtues of ‘positive psychology’ are extolled far and wide these days, likely in defiance of the tide of gloom that threatens to wash us all into oblivion. Hunker down, focus on what YOU can achieve, plough forward aglow with unwavering self-belief. An industry spawned on the back of this gleaming cash cow! Well the roots of this movement can be traced back to the godfather of flow, Mihalyi Czsikzentmihalyi (and later Martin Seligman) who undertook to uncover the principles to a happy life base on observations of those resilient to hardship (spawned from a childhood surrounded by survivors of the Holocaust). But I do not want to pursue ‘positive psychology’ in this article, but rather consider it’s nemesis, and bring to attention a key brain area that is involved in both self-awareness and the processing of emotional valence. I give you ‘negative psychology’!
The brain seems fairly adept at processing negative information, consolidating this, ruminating upon it. Painful stimuli seem to us more acute, depression longer lasting (than ‘happiness’), and stressful events are lodged firmer in the neural systems dealing with behavioural response than those with an uplifting essence (Allan et al., 2012). It is posited that THREE positively emotionally valent events need to occur for every single negative one in order to ‘balance’ the brain’s neurochemistry with respect to management of stress and offsetting behavioural patterns that can determine aversive responses to a given stimulus. That means, for instance, where a traumatic or simply emotionally downbeat instance has been experienced, this will encode a certain aversive reaction in the hippocampus that is strongly likely to be activated in future. Patterns of behaviour once established are hard to shake up, and the consequence is an automatic habitual reaction. We are nervy creatures at heart, easily spooked in that sense. With the release of hormones / neurotransmitters such as cortisol and dopamine our coping systems interact with learning mechanisms that lay down the basis for future behaviours. It is telling that a greater amount of this ‘lubricant’ is required to counteract the effect of a single detrimentally perceived stimulus and imprint a more approach-centric response in future to a context or event. Three times as much by all account, the so-called ‘golden ratio’ (Allan et al, 2012).
We are predisposed to negativity! It is far easier to shrink back, retreat into the cave, bow the head and huddle under the blankets when faced with a threat. Than to draw oneself up, puff out the chest and advance boldly towards danger. Or novelty. It’s a matter of interpretation. And this is the key point. The brain constructs it’s own reality, based on incoming sensory stimuli, embellished and interpreted by internal ideas, preconceptions, expectations, past experiences about what the outside world is actually about. There is a certain amount of choice in this process of interpretation. It might not be clearly accessible choice. One may not be so aware of the fact one has a choice in the matter. But the brain at core is choosing to respond one way or the other, and it is possible to drill down into the neural architecture and identify areas and structures that play a key role in this interpretative decision making. One such area is known as the posterior cingulate cortex. This is part of the wider Default Mode Network that I have elaborated upon at length.
The DMN is involved in aspects of ‘selfhood’ as it were. When deactivated, such as when one is engaged wholly in a task that requires concentration, focus of attention to external factors, and goal driven performance, the ‘self’ all but disappears. The PCC is a central node in this network (Brewer et al., 2013). Evidence suggests (Maddock et al., 2003) that this has a function with respect to dealing with the emotional significance of autobiographical memories. It has a role in behavioural strategy employed relative to emotional salience based on memories for past experiences. So feeling a certain way based on thinking about previous instances where one has been in a certain situation will elicit a specific response (thus strengthening certain reactive patterns). It has also been linked to addiction (Brewer et al., 2013). It appears to play a role in arousal and focus of attention (be it internal or external), and introspective analysis of thoughts and awareness. As such, the likelihood of continuing with a rigid set of actions versus switching to a novel behavioural approach may depend on the level of activation and functional connectivity exhibited by this particular structure.
Based on this supposition, if we want to transform our attitudes and responses to circumstance, we want to have some level of influence over the activity in the PCC. If we can find a way to reduce activation in this structure, we stand a chance of disrupting the automaticity of our actions, decisions, instinctive responses. The result would be greater flexibility over what we do next. This may mean not reacting to a situation in a stock way (like we always react). But equally it means processing the information about a situation in a different way and not being subject to repeating patterns of rumination. It is possible to ascribe valence to a stimulus that perhaps runs counter to a previous interpretation. So a negative becomes a positive. Circumstance can be reframed according to the directional slant one wishes to put upon it. We create our own narrative, and this part of the brain is perhaps the quill with which the prose is scribed.
It is no coincidence in that case that reduced activity in the posterior cingulate has been observed in scientific studies of meditation effects (Brewer et al., 2011). In practices that stress mindfulness, awareness of the presence and ‘deactivation of the self’, the PCC tunes down, removing the valence of circumstance, and one simply observes as is. There is indeed alleged neurophysiological virtue in mindfulness training! Seeking out circumstance that promotes mindful awareness of the present, of the aspects of an environment that are ‘other’ rather than ‘self’, will help train this area of the brain to be more ‘controllable’. And with that a degree of ‘self’ control that can allow greater agency over one’s actions, one’s attitudes, and one’s ‘instinctive-responses’. To be the master of one’s habits is a lofty goal to aspire to, but think of the satisfaction and achievement that would be possible! I will explore further how the natural environments in which we can immerse voluntarily, and the adventurous pursuits that enable deep immersion in this, may help facilitate this ‘training’ of control over the PCC and associated elements of the DMN / ‘self’ centres that govern who we essentially are…(or perhaps more accurately ‘how’ we are: what we do with the information we process about ourselves, about our surroundings and the ‘other’ things that populate that, ultimately determines our fate).
So, with that, ‘negative psychology’ reflects the spirit of using awareness key brain structures (such as PCC) to help determine how we form attitudes towards concepts and circumstance. In that sense it is not the gloomy concept implied at the start of this discussion. In fact it is more concerned with acknowledging a predisposition of the brain to amplify negative effects and strongly determine behavioural response on the back of that. By drawing attention to this facet of neurobiology, and considering the different structures and brain connectivity involved (yet malleable), we can appreciate that nothing is set in stone and the underlying systems can be tinkered with to change courses of action. So sit back, focus on your breath, let your thoughts be but leaves swirling in the wind, observe their chaotic yet systematic motion, and immerse yourself in the present. For by doing so you exert your own ‘will’ over an otherwise (literally) ‘self’-perpetuating system that may ‘blindly’ rely on the past (or it’s own potentially negative narrative of that past) to determine a future over which you have increasingly less apparent control!
The idea that 'doing' can offset the predilection towards getting caught up in one's self and a ruminating spiral of negativity is one that constantly circulates here. By engaging in a goal, a task that draws upon one's resources in the grand theatre of the outdoors, one can potentially offset these self-perpetuating processes and drive the brain into a healthier, gear. And by practising a mindful approach whilst immersed in wilderness activities, or simply by virtue of being situated within nature environs, one is taking steps towards harnessing control over the brain functions that would otherwise career heedlessly towards the horizon.
Allan, J.F., McKenna, J. and Hind, K (2012). Brain resilience: Shedding light into the black box of adventure processes. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 16(1), 3-14,
Brewer, J.A., Garrison, K.A. and Whitfield-Gabriel, S. (2013). What about the “Self” is Processed in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 647.
Brewer J. A., Worhunsky P. D., Gray J. R., Tang Y. Y., Weber J., Kober H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108, 20254–2025910.1073/pnas.1112029108
Garrison K., Santoyo J., Davis J., Thornhill T., Kerr C., Brewer J. (2013a). Effortless awareness: using real time neurofeedback to investigate correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 7:440.10.3389/fnhum.2013.00440
Leknes S, and Tracey, I (2008). A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nat Rev Neurosci. (4):314-20. doi: 10.1038/nrn2333.
Maddock, Richard J.; Garrett, Amy S.; Buonocore, Michael H. (January 2003). "Posterior cingulate cortex activation by emotional words: fMRI evidence from a valence decision task". Human Brain Mapping. 18 (1): 30–41.
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The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.