The Mental Conundrum

by Ali Ahmad, October 8, 2021

We all have faced a feeling of regret at some point in our lives. Regret is a human condition that I am sure all of us have faced at least once in our lifetime. The feelings of hopelessness and regret positively reinforce each other as we look back on the past and fixate on the problems we have faced. The more we begin to fixate on these problems, the more we begin to deviate from taking action and instead begin to imagine hypotheticals in our mind. These replays of alternate scenarios in our heads induce  feelings of accomplishment and triumph where there is none to begin with. This fantasy is our mind methodology of expunging negative emotions and mutating it into something bright and positive. This at first does not sound like a problem at first, given that we normally associate feelings of positivity with fulfillment. However, I believe that the motivation that drives us to excel and learn is stifled by feelings of positive emotions that overshadow negative feelings. 

I was once at a house party and a friend of mine from high school was in attendance. They had just accepted an offer of admission from Dartmouth College, a prestigious ivy league university. I was just a junior in High School studying for a retake of the SAT exam hoping to get into a good school. Naturally, I felt that I had fallen behind in my studying and went to bed at night dreaming that I had attained a perfect score through hours of desiccated study. I instantly felt better afterwards and unfortunately I never put in the hours of studying I had initially envisioned myself doing. If I had set up initial negative feelings of having fallen behind or of feeling inferior, I might have had the push I needed to put in the hours of studying and to make a meaningful change in my life.

In a study conducted on cocaine addiction treatment success, the emotional processing of addicts was measured to see if there is any correlation between motivation and goal directed behaviors. The study found that brain areas activated in early treatment for cocaine addiction were also active during  emotional activation. These brain regions included the amygdala, accumbens, and fusiform gyrus (Contreras-Rodriguez et al.). This might sound surprising at first, considering that we all strive to cultivate positive emotions. On the contrary, we all purposefully have a built in “negativity bias,” that we actively use to create adverse scenarios to contrast against to better digest information. This bias is an evolutionary feature unique to humans. In fact the early origin of these negative emotions can be clearly observed in infants, where infants “look at angry faces for a shorter duration due a recognition of aversive stimulus,” (Vasih et al.) All of this suggests that our brains are hardwired from the beginning to attend to negative or threatening stimulus in the environment more so than happy or positive stimulus.

So what are the practical takeaways from this finding? We can first begin by redirecting our negative cognitive energy to moving forward. By grounding ourselves in the present moment we can begin to break through this mental trap and begin to take small steps towards a slightly more positive future.


Works Cited

Contreras-Rodriguez, Oren, et al. “The neural interface between negative emotion regulation and motivation for change in cocaine dependent individuals under treatment.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, vol. 208, 2020. doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.107854

Vaish, Amrisha, et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 134, no. 3, 2013, pp. 383–403. doi.org/10.1037%2F0033-2909.134.3.383

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