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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

Looking for Anger

There are tons of movies out there debating which is stronger, good or evil? It is even in children’s movies, like “Monsters Inc” where they discover that screams (aka fear) is not as powerful as laughter (aka joy).

Have you ever wondered what emotions are stronger? Which ones direct your life the most? If you are not sure, ask yourself if you are making most of your decisions based on AVOIDING what you don’t want or MOVING TOWARDS what you do want?

This is exactly the topic for today’s post, and as a bonus I’m going to let out my inner geek (although to be fair, it’s probably already “out there”).

What emotions are important for us, as humans, to detect?

Right now, the biggest part of my professional life is as a researcher- so figuring out why and how things happen. I’m particularly interested in Working Memory and Attentional Control.

Working Memory is where we hold information in mind so that we can do things like math, reading, or carrying on a conversation. It is important for pretty much everything we do.

The thing is, with working memory you can only put so much in it before it gets overloaded, so we use an attentional control system (aka Filter) along with it. This filter directs our attention to important/ relevant information that we want to focus on, and ignore the rest. We have talked a bit about this in the past in “What’s Your Filter?” back in September 2013.

So where am I going with this geek talk, and how does this relate to what we talk about on this site?

In pouring over the hundreds if not thousands of articles I need to understand for my research, I stumbled across really interesting article written in 2003 by Mark Fenske & John Eastwood.

In their experiment, using simple line drawings of happy faces and angry faces, they found that when people were asked to focus their attention on the happy faces, they still noticed “unimportant” (not important for completing the task) angry faces and it influenced how well they did on the task. On the other hand, when people were asked to focus on the angry faces, even though they noticed the happy faces, the “unimportant” happy faces didn’t have nearly as much influence on how well they did as the angry faces did

Here’s how it all comes together…

  1. Using even very simple drawings their research is a good demonstration that humans are biased towards detecting negative emotions such as anger.

  2. AND negative emotions keep the focus of our attention even when we’re supposed to be focussing on positive emotion cues.

This also really fits with the idea that nature has programmed us to be extra aware of possible threats way more than how much we enjoy things! From a survival perspective, it is more important for us to know where the thing with big teeth and claws is than where the fluffy little creature with the little white tail is. Seems reasonable right? But does this always work for us? How does that affect us in day to day life???

Well, when we are so focussed on assessing the threats we might be missing the positive things that are right in front of us!! Not only that, we as humans, often assess our own thoughts and feelings as threats too, not only the outside world!

As a result, we can become so focused on the negative emotions, that we don’t pay attention to  the positive thoughts and feelings that are there too! Even if we do pay attention to those positive thoughts and feelings, we are much more likely to be distracted by the negative feelings!

What can we do about it? Well, in the immortal words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle. And now you know”.

As we’ve always stressed here at ILP, awareness gives us choice. Engaging in Mindfulness practices and showing ourselves compassion are two ways that we can “take a step back” from the content of our internal and/or external world and see if there really is a threat that should be directing our behaviour. See New Brain, Old Brain and Mindfulness for more details on how to do this (follow all three parts for the most benefit).

In many ways we fall victim to our biological programming, so whatever associations we have made to feeling threatened, whether valid or not, will activate us to pay attention to them more. BUT part of the beauty of being human is that as soon as we see old stories as just that, stories that are no longer founded in reality, that AWARENESS EMPOWERS US to CHOOSE to invest in a new story that helps us feel stronger rather than weaker.

It is important to remember that we have had years of reacting to our fear triggers with fear, it will take CONSCIOUS EFFORT and PRACTICE  to shift our relationship to those same old stories, so don’t be discouraged when you need to work on it for a while.

So take a step back and look around, the sun might be shining and you don’t want to miss it do you???

As always, we would love to hear from you here, by email, or on twitter: @kryanwilson or @DrAdrianaWilson.

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