Are we hard-wired to focus on the bad news?

How come the bad stuff sticks
and the good stuff fades??

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Linking and Learning

Musings on the Machinations of Memory

FacebookLikeAwakening early today, I had time to justify a rare jaunt through FaceBook to catch up on whatever was going on with my life-long friends.  I was struck by how very many are struggling with emotional reactions to losing loved-ones to death and dementia.

We are at that stage of life, I suppose, where loss will become something that we must learn to live with more and more.

My thoughts began to take a right turn as I gazed at all of the black and white memorial photos of mothers and aunts and fathers and uncles from days gone by.

Unlined, full of hope, long before brows became furrowed with memories of struggle.  How would they have looked in those photos, I wondered, if they could have known what the next five or more decades would hold?

Moving along, “liking” here, commenting there, I came upon a another of those “getting my frustrating day off my chest” posts by one of my FaceBook Friends that began with an interesting reframe, essentially this: I have lived 365 days times my years on this earth.  They can’t all be keepers — and this one wasn’t.

While that’s a wonderful lens through which to look at our occasional experiences of one of those days,  why CAN’T all the days be keepers?

Why don’t we just cut out the crummy parts and file away what was good about the day?

Why are we so drawn to discussing the dark and dismissing the lighter as fluffy or something?  I mean, I’m aware that Pollyanna isn’t exactly everybody’s idea of their favorite role model, but why NOT?

Life-lessons from my clients

As you might imagine, my clients bring more than a few “juggling struggles” to their coaching calls. They come with resolve and hope tarnished by the latest disaster . . . which reminds them of an earlier one, and off we go.

We spend the session reliving their successes, and they leave with a new view of themselves — one that empowers them to “get back on the horse” to gallop full speed ahead once more — until the next time something stops them cold and we revisit the process.

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Walking a mile in my OWN shoes

Coloring Pages: PrintActivities

Coloring Pages: PrintActivities

I firmly believe that my clients are my mirrors – they are sent to me by some unseen fairy godmentor as a nudge to take a second look at an area of my own life that I have put on auto-pilot.  Bummer!  What’s going on with ME around this issue?

  • I’ve worked long and hard on my lemonade-making skills;
    I’m sure I make the best in America.
  • I am on intimate terms with gratitude lists and reframing techniques;
    we spend much time together, practically every day.
  • I have reoriented my eyes in their sockets so it is difficult to see anything OTHER than a glass that is half-full

So how come the mean things said to me before my ADD diagnosis still pop into my head for no good reason from time to time?  I’ve had my diagnosis for WELL over twenty years, for heaven’s sakes.

More to the point, how come I spend a nano-second of my life responding to the ghosts of those memories through the lens of what I know now? (And I promise you, I spend much more than a nano-second.)

Why am I still haunted by those crummy memories?

I have no studies to site to support my answer as to why it seems that the bad stuff is triple-stitched and the good stuff is attached by a small strip of over-used Velcro™.

Oh, there may well be somebody who managed to secure a grant to study the issue. But I am not inclined to add to the time it takes to get an article posted to go on a hunt for a study simply to justify my thinking about this dynamic.  I have seen it SO many times it surely must be part of the technical specifications for the making of  a human being.

I believe we ARE “hard-wired” to remember the bad.

Human Spec Sheets

I’m sure most of us know that we’re not really “wired” up there in our heads, and I’m sure more than a few of us understand that the machine-analogy has fallen into disfavor as a description of the brain.

It’s useful, however, to use hard-wired to point out items on the list of “standard features” — as opposed to the after-market installations.  You know, differences we often reference in nature/nurture debates.

  • So, what might have been the evolutionary advantage to a brain skewed to paint the ugly in bolder strokes than the beauty of all that is glorious?
  • How do our brains DO that?
  • And who CARES anymore if Mrs.Third-grade-teacher told me I was going to come to grief if I didn’t get organized?

Yeah sure, it keeps us alive long enough to breed if we recall where the sabre-tooth tigers like to hang – and to make sure a close call is never repeated because we simply didn’t remember where it happened.

But Mrs. Whose-it was no sabre-tooth.  She meant me no harm. I liked her, as I recall, though I can’t for the life of me remember why.  I don’t remember anything ELSE she said to me that made me feel bad, and I’m sure I would have.

See what I mean?  

I can’t even recall her NAME, but I can tell you her exact words when she hurt my feelings, “Madelyn, if you don’t get organized, you are going to come to grief.”

I can even tell you what I responded in my little kid head (but didn’t say aloud, to my everlasting regret, apparently), “What a strange thing to say to a child.”

Why IS that? I promise you it has been over half a century since those words were spoken.  How come they’re still hanging around?

Our Old Friend, Mr. Amygdala

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

The amygdala, remember, is that part of the brain that reacts with fear and anxiety, activating your fight-flight-freeze programming in response to any threatening stimulus – in fractions of a millisecond.

That, in turn, shuts down the PFC (pre-frontal cortex), the higher order thinking/decision making part of the brain that you need to be able to work through problems and make decisions that will allow you to step through to solutions.

The amygdala has evolved to do ONE thing very, very well — to keep you alive.

It commandeers all available resources to prepare you to fight for your life or run for it.

Mr. Amygdala can’t tell the difference between a sabre-tooth tiger attack and a stored memory you just reactivated by thinking about the horrible fate in store for disorganized little girls.

  • Which is connected to the thought that you might have been a real contender if you’d been diagnosed in the third grade – or ANY time before you were almost forty
  • Which is connected to the thought that the only reason you weren‘t diagnosed earlier was because the DSM-II did a stupid thing — changing the name of what was called ADD when less political heads prevailed, to HRC – Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood. (It was known during the first DSM as MBD – Minimal Brain Damage)

THEN, if that weren’t bad enough, they stuck the entire kit-n-kaboodle in the childhood section because the budding kiddie-shrink field won the coin toss

  • Which is connected to the knowledge of 20 years of field amnesia concerning the existence of ADDults, and all of the doctors who STILL haven’t gotten the memo that you don’t necessarily “age out” of an ADD diagnosis
  • Which is connected to how DANGEROUS that damned “H” turned out to be and how stupid it was to retain it for the DSM-5 that just got published, since an entire generation (of which you were a part) was missed the last time an unthinking term was decided upon as a name for the disorder.

An entire generation struggled needlessly, under-functioning and undiagnosed until the logistics of a study were deemed too dangerous for children, so it was decided to use adults instead.  (You know, those ADDults most of the world believed couldn’t exist.)

  • Which is connected to your knowledge of what MOST people think when they see the word “hyperactive,” wondering how many people won’t get diagnosed because they’re not running around like wild Indians.
  • Which is connected to the anxiety that, even though you seem to seem to remember the devastation of 20 years of field amnesia, you are doomed to watch it repeat all over again anyway, courtesy of the idiots who put the DSM-5 together.

See what I mean?  See how it escalates?  The entire cascade whips through your brain like a California brush-fire — too quickly to douse.

Danger is danger, and danger sounds the first alarm.

The PFC’s slower response time is no match for the speed of Mr. Amygdala’s finger on the “kill-logical-thinking” panic button. Your PFC may override your automatic response to actually head for the hills or arm yourself for battle, but it’s not likely to come up with appropriate responses to the challenges of this particular 21st century distraction.

In other words, once Mr. Amygdala has sounded the alarm, attempts to access your more reasonable, logical self to exert your will over the reactive, primitive parts of your brain aren’t likely to be very successful.

Higher-order cognitive skills are modulated by the PFC – which is taken off-line, remember, by activation of the more primitive circuits of the brain in what used to be referred to as the limbic system (Mr. Amydala’s turf).

But why was the comment stored to BEGIN with?

spotlightFirst, we have to understand the impact of attention on registration.

Registration is memory’s first step: laying down the tracks in the first place. The spotlight of attention allows us to be aware of something going on around us.

If our attention is not directed to an event, we are simply unaware that an event is occurring.

If we aren’t aware of something to begin with, there is NO way we will be able to remember it, because there is no way it could have been registered for storage.

In this case, attention was secured by the fact that my teacher was talking straight to me, she used my name and, as I seem to recall, she looked me right straight in the eyes as she said it in that “Pay attention, this is important” tone of voice that parents often use.

But we are aware of a lot of things in a typical day.  How come my brain stored her comment, but not her name?  Why can’t I recall what she looked like?

Memory Consolidation & Long-Term Potentiation

Additional articles in the Linking and Learning Series will expand on this explanation but, basically, events registered in the presence of strong emotion are stored MUCH more reliably than other things we try to remember.

Love and fear are among the strongest emotions in our arsenal of feelings.

  • Most of us remember where we were and the circumstances surrounding our becoming aware of what happened in New York and Washington on a particular September eleventh.
  • Those of us who are old enough to have been around — and to have understood the meaning of the news that John Kennedy (or John Lennon, or Martin Luther King) had been shot — will always remember the shock of the moment we heard, as well as the surrounding circumstances. Now, we’ll add the Boston Marathon to the list.

Whether or not we were afraid for our own lives right that very second, the news activated our fear of death – or of violence – or of war – or of riots.

We suddenly didn’t feel SAFE, so our brain stored the circumstances away, hoping they would be as useful to our survival as our cave-ancestor’s memory of the location of that den of sabre-tooth tigers.

Likewise, most of us vividly remember our first “real” kiss – the first time we started to understand what all the shoutin’ was about.  We remember our own weddings – and those of our sons and daughters.

So, I was in love with the teacher? Or maybe afraid of her?



No, I’m fairly certain I wasn‘t afraid of that teacher who was so concerned for my organizational safety.  I don’t believe I was in love with her either. But I’m pretty sure I would have wanted her to like me.

I think I would have wanted her to like me so much that I would have been afraid that maybe this was the beginning of the end for that particular dream of acceptance – and everything I believed that lack of acceptance indicated.

You see, my Dad was a military scientist and we moved around a lot.  I changed schools every year – always the new kid  – odd man out until I had time to make new friends.  Every year.

  • I was very young when I put together my “Whatever you do, never make anyone uncomfortable” strategy.
  • “Make ’em laugh, keep your eyes peeled for signs of acceptance, and you’ll be okay.”

The LAST thing I would have wanted was to be pointed out as somebody who didn’t have some quality that would make the other kids decide I wasn’t a candidate for their friendship!

Since I never knew exactly which qualities were valuable in each new environment, I just hoped I’d figure it out somehow before anybody else decided I wasn’t likeable.

So I would have been VERY afraid when that teacher found something seemingly unacceptable about me.

NOW What?

How to we train ourselves to pay more attention to the good news?  How do we make sure we keep our many every day, garden variety GOOD memories alive?

How do we unhook the cascade of badness that follows in rapid succession with every not-so-great thought that activates our fear centers?

More importantly, how do we stop getting hooked by old fears activated by old memories to begin with?

GREAT questions!

I’ll attempt to answer them in articles to come — as we explore more about attention, memory, linking, learning, and moving ON, untethered from our past.  So stay tuned.

UNTIL THEN, I can tell you that bringing the dynamic to consciousness is a good start. Awareness is always the first step on the pathway to growth and change.

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Shared on the Senior Salon

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IN ANY CASE, stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series, click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

20 Responses to Are we hard-wired to focus on the bad news?

  1. Pingback: Moving Past PTSD triggers | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Overcoming Bad: Get To The GOOD – The Militant Negro™

  3. Pingback: Overcoming the bad to get to the GOOD | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. I love reading your informative, intelligent articles.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Debbie says:

    Thanks for linking me to this article Madelyn…. another fantastic one….. 🙂


  6. Pingback: Surviving Beloved’s ADD | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  7. Pingback: Emotional Manipulation | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  8. Steve says:

    And what do I think? The same thing every time I read one of your articles: that somehow you have gotten inside my mind and taken my thoughts. When I read your comments concerning a past event, I often can’t get through the article because it touches so close to home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WOW, Steve, you just made MY day!!!! Thank you.

      I have spent most of my life researching what in the heck is going on (and how can we move forward anyway?), and I now spend what amounts to a hefty part-time job sharing what I’ve learned. (except for the money part ::grin:: — and ::groan::)

      Sometimes, when I’m on my 4th hour at the keyboard, totally alone, I FEEL totally alone.

      • Is anybody actually reading this stuff?
      • Is it HELPING anybody or am I fooling myself and wasting my time?

      Comments like yours keep me going. Seriously — THANK YOU!



  9. MindBody says:

    BTW- great post- and spot on track as usual 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw shucks!? Seriously, coming from YOU, that means a bunch.

      Not rushing – simply nudging – are you working on your references for that guest post I promised everybody was coming, back on one of the earlier articles of the sleep series? (where you promised you’d be asleep in 30 minutes after you shut down your computer because . . .) Yeah, THAT one.

      Inquiring minds can’t wait to hear!



  10. MindBody says:

    You should read the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson:

    Rick’s website, and weekly email has some wonderful advice on it.

    We are the progeny of those who did not get eaten- those who were quick witted enough to stay one step ahead of danger.

    Rick recommends a practice called “taking in the good”- whenever something good happens to you- stay with the moment ad think about the experience, your good fortune, ad the kindness of others that brought that experience to you.

    It works.

    Liked by 1 person

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