You step in a puddle and your sock gets wet. You get to the bus stop only to realise you’ve forgotten your travel card. You buy your morning coffee and immediately spill it…everywhere. Do you shake it off, Taylor Swift style, or do you let these inconveniences affect the rest of your day?
Turns out that how your brain evaluates fleeting negative stimuli — the wet sock, the missing travel card, the dropped coffee cup — can influence your long-term psychological well-being. That’s according to a new study on brain activity, led by University of Miami psychologists.
In fact, they found that “the longer your brain holds on to a negative event, or stimuli, the unhappier you report being,” says Nikki Puccetti, lead author of the story.
Assistant professor of psychology and senior author of the study, Aaron Heller, calls it “emotional colouring” and says that “Understanding the biological mechanisms of that is critically important to understanding the differences in brain function, daily emotions, and well-being.”
As it turns out, it all goes back to our amygdala — the almond-shaped structure on both sides of the cerebrum. Those little almonds support emotion and memory and evaluate stimuli — and the left one really had a role to play in this study.
People whose left amygdala held on to negative stimuli for fewer seconds were more likely to report more positive and fewer negative emotions in their daily lives. Cup of coffee, be damned! Doesn’t bother them. And it ends up spilling over — pun intended — to a more enduring wellbeing over time.
For those whose left amygdala reacted more persistently to negative images over time? You guessed it, they reported more negative and fewer positive emotions in their day to day.
The authors stated that: “It may be that for individuals with greater amygdala persistence, negative moments may become amplified or prolonged by imbuing unrelated moments that follow with a negative appraisal.”
So yep, it’s a little almond-shaped presence in your brain that determines whether you wipe up the spilled coffee, laugh, and get another one, or stay grumpy for the rest of the day.