Negative Bias and Pleasure

May 09, 2018

Negative Bias and Pleasure

Frequently, when I’m out and about the subject of pleasure comes up. Seems I’m now associated with the topic! Recent conversations with friends and colleagues have reinforced the significance of pleasure to counter what in psychology we call “the negative bias.” I spoke about this before, but it bears repeating, and perhaps elaborating a bit.

Remember where you come from

It goes like this – humans have evolved in time from an environment where existence was pretty scary. Life threatening elements were a constant – dangerous animals, scarcity of food, and other forms of extreme insecurity. So, our biological systems developed around an orientation to threat. Those who were really good at being attuned to the dangers and were particularly hyper-vigilant survived. Those traits were rewarded with survival, and were passed on to future generations.

So, we arrive here today when the physical threats in our environment are minimal – particularly when living in developed societies. Food, dwellings, and personal safety are relatively assured. But our brains are still firing danger signals, as if we still lived on the savannah. This is what we mean by “negative bias” – we’re still expecting the worst; imagine danger around every corner.

Addressing Trauma

If you couple this inborn genetic pre-disposition with various forms of trauma people experience, the negative bias is stronger. Depression and anxiety are after effects of trauma and increase the propensity to negative bias. Working through the trauma is important and the input of pleasure is a very helpful antidote, along with traditional forms of trauma treatment.

The Key Message of Unlock Pleasure

But when you’re depressed or the anxiety is high, it’s hard to imagine you could feel pleasure. It feels so inaccessible. The use of your cognitive and will capacity can help. This is why the key message of Unlock Pleasure is - we need pleasure for healing and wellbeing. In moments when you can even slightly lift your awareness out of the darkness and look around – intending to find goodness, beauty, or a sliver of joy, and notice the sensations in your body, this practice begins to shift the cycle. Or maybe you’re deep in sadness or heaviness of some sort, and you’re desperate to find a way out – remember pleasure and use your positive will to purposely go towards whatever you name as joy.

For me, I put on a favourite piece of music, soak in a hot bath with a mood lightening scent of essential oil, or I might go for a walk by the river. I have art on my walls and each piece I’ve chosen because it represents beauty or calm or an element of nature that I want in my environment as a supportive reminder. So even choosing to focus in on the imaginary can help lift me. The memory of the person who created the painting, or the circumstances when I bought the it, can shift me slightly, and often enough to begin to turn a low mood around.

We have an Instinct for Pleasure

Now pleasure means different things for different people so, that’s why it’s important to pay attention to pleasure. Find out what works for you. It’s not necessarily the message the marketers are constantly bombarding us with. Pleasure doesn’t have to cost a penny. As well as that negative bias, we also have an instinct for pleasure – it’s just less in the fore ground. But by bringing our attention to it, we build new neuro pathways in the brain that counter the negative bias.

What have you noticed about the attunement to pleasure to shift difficult emotional states? I’d love to hear your experience.

Next entry: Pleasure and Positive Sense of Self

Previous entry: The Radical Act of Pleasure

“As I step into the classroom with Madeline, I am aware of a spaciousness that few other facilitators offer, giving adequate time for self-reflection and digestion of the material.  The spaciousness is well-supported by experiential learning and practical teachings.  Madeline’s work—both within her own life and in facilitating others—speaks clearly through the profound space she holds for learning, and healing, to happen.”

Nikki Manzie, Program Director, – Yoga Therapy and Eastern Therapies Pacific Rim College Victoria B.C.