Do You Focus on the Positive or the Negative?

Understanding why some brains tend toward negativity could be a breakthrough in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

Posted in , Oct 26, 2018

Do you tend toward positive or negative thinking?

Do you know people who, when faced with a decision that has both advantages and drawbacks, tend to focus almost exclusively on the potential negative outcomes? Do you feel that sometimes, you are that kind of pessimistic decision-maker?

Neuroscientists at MIT have been exploring a previously under-studied region of the brain that could be connected to this type of pessimistic tendency. These researchers have identified the “caudate nucleus” as the region responsible for generating negative emotions. The findings, which were published in August, could help mental health professionals better understand and treat emotional challenges including depression and anxiety.

The type of decision-making I described above is called “approach-avoidance” deciding. When presented with a choice that includes both negative and positive possible outcomes, our emotional tendencies appear on full display. If we have generally optimistic outlooks, we will be drawn to the positive outcomes of the decision. If we tend toward pessimism, however, we will put a lot of weight on the negative possibilities.

The MIT researchers presented an “approach-avoidance” scenario to laboratory animals, offering them juice but pairing that reward with a puff of air that the animals didn’t like. When the scientists stimulated the caudate nucleus region of the brain during the experiment, the animals declined the reward even when the puff of air was lessened or even removed altogether.

These findings suggest that excessive activity in the caudate nucleus causes the brain to devalue rewards and increase focus on negative outcomes.

It’s not hard to recognize the implications this emerging brain science could have for emotional health. After all, understanding the brain chemistry behind negative thought patterns is a necessary aspect of developing new strategies for encouraging positive ones.

How do you navigate “approach-avoidance” decisions? What do you do to balance the weight you give to potential negative and positive outcomes?

View Comments