The Value of Negative Experiences


February 5 was NOT a good day for me. In the words of the popular children’s writer and psychoanalyst Judith Viorst, it was a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” My car was broken into while jogging, involving the theft of my wallet, credit cards, and checkbook. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach as I spotted the shattered back window from a distance. Looking immediately into the console of my car–where these items were kept–only confirmed my fears. Everything was gone. Those of you having experienced identity theft know the feeling all too well. Exacerbating my loss was the knowledge that I had no one to blame but myself. Frankly, I had grown complacent; having jogged at this particular park many times, and leaving such valuable information in a securely locked car (or so I thought). Had it not been for locating a police officer who took my report and provided telephone numbers to call, the situation would have been much worse. Quite simply, I was traumatized. 

The financial and emotional fallout from that experience is better now in these 6+ months since, but the trauma still lingers. I still go (force myself to go?) to that same location to jog, but with some definite changes. I no longer leave such valuable information in my car, and my complacency has been replaced with a vigilance; even hypervigilance at times. Call it the school of hard knocks. 

In his book Buddha’s Brain (2009), neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD writes about the value of negative experiences:

“When an event is flagged as negative, the (brain) makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. Once burned, twice shy. Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones – even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.” I’ve thought of Hanson’s Velcro/Teflon simile often since February 5, and have used it frequently with clients in therapy. Hear it again:

“Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences,

and Teflon for positive ones.”

This is not to minimize or idealize the negative effects of pain, or to promote suffering. Hanson quickly adds that “emotional pain with no benefit to yourself or others is pointless suffering.” Nevertheless, he underscores what he calls the “negativity bias of memory.” Why? What possible value could there be from negative experiences? In a word? Survival. Hanson continues:

“(The) brain is built more for avoiding than for approaching. That’s because it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival….(L)oss open the heart, remorse provides a moral compass, anxiety alerts you to threats, and anger spotlights wrongs that should be righted.” Obviously “survival” means more than the avoidance of human extinction; it enhances quality of life. Hanson continues:

“The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. Rather, it is to foster positive experiences….Positive experiences can be used to replace negative ones. When two things are held in mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other. That’s one reason why talking about hard things with someone who’s supportive can be so healing; painful feelings and memories get infused with the comfort, encouragement, and closeness you experience with the other person. These mental minglings draw on the neural machinery of memory. When a memory–whether implicit or explicit–is made, only its key features are stored, not every single detail….When your brain retrieves a memory, it does not do it like a computer does, which calls up a complete record of what’s on its hard drive (e.g., document, picture, song). Your brain rebuilds implicit and explicit memories from their key features, drawing on its stimulating capacities to fill in missing details.”

Hanson echos the research of others, including UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel, M.D., whose research I’ve referenced extensively throughout my blogs. Basically, writes Siegel, “Memory is not a static thing, but an active set of processes…Remembering is not merely the reactivation of an old (experience); it is the construction of a new (understanding) with features…from other experiences…and present state of mind” (The Developing Mind, 2012). 

Summary. The brain has a bias toward negativity. There is value in negative experiences. Negative experiences need not be the final verdict. Positive experiences can begin to modify negative experiences in the brain. All this I have been reminded of since February 5. I still go to that same park to jog. I still have residual memories of that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” But, other experiences since are attaching themselves to the old memory. Just the other day, I finished my run and leaned against my car. I watched children playing. I noticed a new dog owner training his chocolate lab puppy. And I wasn’t thinking about February 5 at all. 

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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