Paul Prather: Wired for negativity, I'm going to try to renew my mind

Contributing columnistNovember 22, 2013 

Paul Prather

My brain has a predilection for careening toward the negative.

Back when Kentucky began its state lottery, a friend and I discussed what we'd do if we were to win a $1 million jackpot.

The question was hypothetical for me, in that I don't play the lottery.

But my answer was this: Well, it's not a million dollars. If you take the lump sum payment, which I would, they knock it down to $700,000. (I no longer remember the exact reduction, but let's pretend that's what it was).

Then Uncle Sam would demand a third or more of whatever was left. I calculated that I'd end up with, oh, maybe $450,000. Maybe less.

So that lowers my options right there, I said. A million-dollar win isn't anywhere near a million dollars. It wouldn't last a lifetime. I couldn't quit my job.

Friends, that's my brain in action.

Tell me I just hit the million-dollar lottery and my first thought wouldn't be, "Whoop-whoop! I'm a millionaire!" It wouldn't even be, "I lucked into $450,000 more than I had five minutes ago!"

Mine would be, "It's not really a million dollars. It's nowhere near that. Boy, these million-dollar jackpots are rip-offs."

I'm the kind of guy who can find a dark cloud in any silver lining.

Apparently, I'm not alone in this. I've read several articles recently that said some scientists now believe human brains are hardwired for negativity.

If I understand the idea correctly, in ancient times the consequences of negative outcomes were more drastic than the benefits of positive ones.

For instance, if you hunted successfully, you'd eat well for a day or two. If you hunted poorly — you didn't notice that green mamba lying next to the trail, or failed to step carefully while pursuing game along a steep cliff — you might die on the spot.

Consequently, humans developed the habit of expending more mental energy on negative outcomes than positive ones.

We're not likely today to get bitten by mambas, but a lot of us remain programmed by our ancestors to focus on the negative more keenly than the positive.

That may explain why, if you give a presentation at work, and 20 colleagues tell you what an incredible smash hit it was, and one tells you it was awful you remember that bad evaluation far longer than the 20 raves.

Fortunately, while reading about all this I also encountered a term I hadn't heard before: "neuroplasticity." Again, allow room for my scientific illiteracy, but I take this to mean that the brain has the ability to reprogram and reinvent itself.

We're all born with innate, hard-wired, possibly inherited personality characteristics such as, in my case, a predisposition for pessimism. But throughout our lives our friends, culture, health, education and so forth also influence us. It's the old tension between nature and nurture.

The aha moment was that modern imaging technology allowed scientists to discover that all these other influences, over time, actually alter the brain's structure.

That is, the brain constantly rewires itself in response to the stimuli it encounters.

You can start out programmed for pessimism, say. That can be your default response, as it is mine.

Over time, though, you may grow even more negative, or you may be nudged in a cheerier direction, depending on what happens to you in life and how you respond.

I found one article (I've misplaced it, and can't give the author his or her due) that suggested taking as little as 10 seconds per episode to intentionally focus on the positive aspects of an event can affect this neuroplasticity.

The other day, I started working on my Thanksgiving sermon. I realized this is the season when many of us consciously set aside a few minutes to enumerate our blessings.

Instead of railing about what a pinhead our boss is, we shift gears; we thank God we have a job and are able to feed our families. Instead of whining about how badly our feet ache, we remember how fortunate we are to be able to walk.

I asked myself, what if I made a point of doing this, not just briefly at Thanksgiving, but several times every day, all year?

What if I paused a few seconds to enumerate the blessings and happy possibilities within every dilemma I find myself facing?

Could I, as St. Paul said, be truly transformed by renewing my mind?

Might I become Mr. Optimistic?

I decided: I'm going to try it. It probably won't work, but I'm going to try anyway.

(That's a little pessimism humor there.)

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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