A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we have much more control over our minds, personalities and personal illnesses than was ever believed to exist before, and it is all occurring at the same time that a flood of other research is exposing the benefits of humor on brain functioning. The ability to change the structure and functioning of the brain through experiences and the conscious use of directed thoughts is referred to as neuroplasticity.
The latest research indicates that the adult brain not only has the ability to repair damaged regions, but to grow new neurons; that willful activity has the power to shape the brain in new directions far into adulthood.
We hear a lot about the effects of illness and old age on the mind, but in the not-too-distant future, we will begin hearing more about the effects of the mind on the mind, and the power of the mind to direct and master its own fate.
The latest discoveries into how the brain responds to positive stimuli such as humor could open doors to new therapies for depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses. Perhaps by somehow stimulating and enhancing the humor processing regions in the brains of the depressed or anxious we can reverse the chemistry of their conditions. Why not use the positive powers of the brain to counter its negative powers?
It is a question that the fields of positive psychology and Gelotology are currently exploring. Gelotologists study the physiological and psychological effects of laughter, and practitioners of positive psychology seek to utilize personal strengths and positive emotions to build resiliency and psychological wellbeing in their clients. Both fields are the source of much research in the use of humor as a coping mechanism.
Unfortunately, researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that negative information has a greater impact on the brain than positive information. As a quick self-test of this concept, imagine that you won a $500 gift certificate to your favorite store. How would that feel?
Now imagine that, instead of winning the gift certificate, you lost $500. Research indicates that the intensity of your response to each of these situations will differ significantly, with the distress of losing $500 far outweighing the pleasure of gaining $500.
This outcome is so common that researchers have given it a name: the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is a result of the of the fight-or-flight response that is activated only during negative experiences. The adrenaline rush and increased heart rate that occur with the fight-or-flight response cause negative events to be experienced more intensely and imprinted on the brain more firmly. The challenge for humor-based therapies will be determining how to apply the humorous stimuli in such a way that it has greater influence in shaping the brain than co-occurring, and usually overpowering, negative experiences.
The brain gives more attention to negative experiences over positive ones because negative events pose a chance of danger. By default, the brain alerts itself to potential threats in the environment, so awareness of positive aspects takes deliberate effort. The most effective therapies would use methods of making our brains more responsive to the positive than the negative.
Of course, we all differ in the degree to which we respond to the negativity bias. Some people are perpetually cheerful and upbeat while others suffer from a complete inability to experience pleasure or see the so-called bright side.
Researchers have found that when depressed people look at photos of fearful faces, they experience greater activation in the amygdala (responsible for emotion control) than nondepressed extroverts. When shown smiling faces, however, the reverse effect occurs, and the brains of the extroverts respond with greater activity than those who are depressed. Tal Yarkoni of Washington University in St. Louis, a student of the human brain’s responses to emotions, interpreted these results as follows:
Part of the reason extroverts seek social contact more often than neurotics may be that their reward system responds more positively to other people’s smiles, causing the extrovert to feel greater pleasure when they are around other people. On the other hand, individuals high on neuroticism may have brains that overreact to negative emotions, leading them to experience more anxiety and depression.
Although some people are naturally more negative, negative events still have a greater impact on everyone’s brains than positive events do. That impact often takes the form of even further vigilance regarding negative information and potential threats in the environment that must be constantly monitored. This vicious cycle is what leads so many people spiraling down rabbit holes of depression and extreme anxiety. There is a constant negative feedback loop at play that, if not interrupted or countered, can lead to significant psychological distress.
Negative experiences frequently are unavoidable, but reframing or reinterpreting the feedback loop is possible. Redefining negative situations in more positive or humorous terms counters the adverse psychological effects that would otherwise be experienced. While we have all heard the tragic stories of fired employees who return to their former workplaces to take vengeance upon those responsible for visiting such a disgrace upon them, the news media fails to report to us about those who, upon being fired, view it as an opportunity to find more fulfilling work or discover a new talent.
People inclined to react angrily or violently can, through conscious effort and the powers of neuroplasticity, use humor to redirect their thoughts more positively. Naturally negative people can develop more optimistic qualities by repeatedly mimicking their more optimistic peers’ reactions to negative events and circumstances.
The negativity bias generally occurs outside conscious awareness, so the first step in countering it is to realize it exists.
The first time you do a task, such as driving a car to a new location, you have to focus and fully concentrate on remembering which turns to take and what landmarks to look out for. After you have taken that route several times, however, you are able to do it with minimal conscious effort. You can let your mind wander to other thoughts while you make those lefts and rights and pass the landmarks because the repetition has imprinted the route on the circuitry of your brain. The same effect is found when positive information is used to counter negativity. At first, the intentionally positive reactions may feel forced, unnatural and possibly somewhat difficult, but over time, they will become second nature — a happier nature.