The Working Waterfront

Tacking toward the positive

Fall-asleep exercise combats brain’s hard-wiring

Barbara Fernald
Posted 2019-11-04
Last Modified 2019-11-04

By Barbara Fernald

To ease myself through the weird transition that happens to me every year for at least a week on either side of Labor Day, I came up with a small thought pattern to help me fall asleep. With the light off, as I adjust my body to a fall-asleep position, I start to think about what I enjoyed during the day.

My rules for this exercise are specific but simple. I can only bring up things I liked, such as the sun’s rays striking the late blooming narcissus flowers. 
When the negative thoughts come up, i.e., “That rainbow seen from the boat was beautiful, but all my groceries got wet,” I work to push away any judgment or “buts.”
I try to keep the remembered moments in their simplest form. I recall little pieces of happiness or beauty, like an unadorned version of a gratitude list.

A good friend recently pointed out that my new practice is a way to combat the negative bias that our brains are hard-wired to employ. What is negative bias? Well, it explains why this is actually a really good exercise and why it can be hard to remember to do it.

From I learned:

“The brain… reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.
“Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.”
So here I am, in my favorite time of year on the island and I am predisposed to remember the bad stuff.

It seems too early for the air to be so much colder in the first week of October. My garden didn’t do very well this summer so there’s not much left to harvest. Sunrise is later, making it harder to get up in time for either of the morning boats to leave off the island. 
For those of us who have lost loved ones in the fall, the shortening of days can evoke grief as a default emotion. Personally, I have a whole lot to be happy for this fall, and yet I am having a tough time with the transition. I think about what I like and yet my negative bias still creeps in.

Today, after writing, I’m headed out in the sunshine to pick apples from a tree that looks out on Islesford’s harbor. I’m really looking forward to it, but the abundant apples are so small this year. See how that “but” crept in to prepare me for pie failure? 

In an effort to finish writing and to battle my positive-negative asymmetry, I will list some of the things I like about this time of year on the islands: 

The reluctant dahlias of early September in their full October bloom.
Picking flowers from gardens where residents have departed.
The smell of the sea from the wet lobster traps brought in by fishermen and placed on the town dock. 
The fresh crisp air of fall.
Apple picking.
Picking ripe rose hips and adding them to my applesauce.
Cashmere sweater weather. 
Watching the sunrise from the 6:30 a.m. commuter boat.
October “Dip of the Month.” 
Watching a great blue heron circle over the water in The Gut, waiting for another to join him, and then watching them head off to the south. I imagine their conversation.  
Stories of migrating birds resting for a few hours on lobster boats.
Quieter days and nights.
The knife-sharp beauty revealed by the angle of the November sun. It’s the only time of year with light like this. 
Watching the tree colors change on the mountains of Mount Desert Island without having to leave our island to drive through the park.
The warmth of a fire in the wood stove.

This list is abbreviated, but you get the idea. From such a list it is easy to take the next step to being thankful for it all. How fortunate that my favorite time of year culminates in a holiday celebrating the gratitude I feel for it.

Barbara Fernald lives on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island).