If you accomplish ten great things today and make one mistake, what will you more likely think about when you lie in bed at night? Most likely you will think about that one mistake, even though the positive accomplishments far outnumber it. This is an example of negativity bias and it is an intrinsic evolutionary quality of our brains. What does it mean and what does it have to do with chronic pain? Let’s explore.
For our ancestors serious mistakes were costly. If they had mistaken a stick for a snake and got scared in vain, it wouldn’t have lasting consequences. But if they had mistaken a snake for a stick it would threaten their survival. So the brain evolved to err on the side of safety and have come to expect snakes even in places where there aren’t any. From the perspective of survival it is better to be overly cautious then not cautious enough. That is why our brains are wired to expect the worst.
Now imagine that your ancestor did once mistake a snake for a stick, got himself in a perilous situation and somehow got away. You bet his brain would mark that experience as extremely dangerous, file it away in a “High Alert” folder and become even more vigilant by developing a quick-response neuropathway for recognizing and dealing with similar situations. In response to any experience that threatens our survival or has a potential to compromise the integrity of the body, the brain learns how to react quickly and becomes overly sensitive to any similar threats.
In addition, because of negativity bias, the brain is constantly scanning the body and the environment for signs of potential trouble. Even when you are relaxed and at ease, this process still takes place behind the scenes in order to react quickly at the slightest sign of danger. When the signs of trouble are detected, the brain quickly switches from its responsive mode into the reactive mode, which means swift sympathetic activation (“fight-or-flight”), dumping of cortisol and other stress hormones into the system and immune response to fight potential infection.
(This terminology (responsive-reactive, as well as green brain-red brain) is used in Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. You can read much more about qualities of those states in this book.)
To summarize, negativity bias makes us
- switch to reactive brain mode fast when a threat is detected
- stay vigilant for signs of potential trouble even when we are at rest
- create a super fast highway to the reactive state from repeat bad experiences
- become hesitant about returning to the responsive mode even when the danger passes.
Any acute pain episode is perceived by the brain as a threat, which quickly puts it into the reactive mode. As a result, the brain will constantly scan the body for similar pain signals (and might mistake other sensations for pain), mount a swift response once a pain signal is detected and will linger in the reactive, sensitive state instead of returning to the calm responsive mode. This is what gives rise to chronic pain.
And of course, other factors might make the experience of pain more or less pronounced, help it come to an end faster or prolong it. We will take a look at those next time.
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Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.