Our Human Brain
I’d like to start by saying that I make a real effort not to specifically talk about experiences with clients in my writing. I dread the thought that someone would read my blog and feel “he is talking about me and my experience, without my consent”. Their experience is their story to tell, not mine. However, I’ve been doing this long enough to notice trends and patterns in the work so I feel it is beneficial and helpful to write about some of my noticings in a more general way. If you read something I write and have the feeling, “he’s talking about me”, then please take a breath and consider for a moment that your experience may be the shared reality of many other people and not just you alone.
It’s a commonly held belief that human brains have portions that operate similarly to the brains of animals (specifically other mammals) and reptiles but that there are also portions that are uniquely human. These human parts of the brain enable us to have personality, emotions, behavior, judgment, speech, intelligence, concentration, awareness, as well as to plan, problem solve, sequence and organize, and interpret and understand language. Some of these characteristics may be present in other mammals but usually to a much smaller and lesser degree.
This difference allows humans to do much higher level activities involving complex tasks enabling the accomplishment of monumental feats. However, mix some trauma into the human life at some point and some of these higher level functions can shift to protect the human from experiencing that harm again. The brain adapts to protect the organism and keep it safe. In our work with clients, we often encounter the defense mechanisms that human brains have developed to keep the person safe even when they are no longer in danger from whatever threatened or harmed them in the past. These mechanisms have become a collection of limiting beliefs that keep them bound in their trauma story and also become obstacles in their ability to truly live their lives.
One author suggests that we continually feel fear, anger, sadness and joy all the time and at the same time. However, we only notice one or maybe two of them at any given time. He also says that we often numb ourselves to feelings altogether. I noticed a correlation of these feelings to nervous system states and responses. For example, anger can lead to fight and fear can lead to flight. Many believe that emotions and feelings are the same thing. Others believe that one or the other are sensed from external stimuli and the other is created mentally through association with past thoughts, events and experiences. I like the word feeling for what is sensed, what you feel and the word emotion for what you create through mental association. The author mentioned above believes that if a feeling persists for more than three minutes, it becomes an emotion. I personally believe it could happen much faster than that and that it can be an entirely different emotion from the original feeling. Our brains can process a lot very quickly. It links to a past thought, event or mental association and then continues down that path shifting from feeling to emotion. It is very common for a feeling to immediately trigger an emotion from a mental association. He also believes that feelings and emotions are all neutral, not to be judged as either good or bad, they just are. I agree with this idea and believe we would all be much better off not labeling feelings and emotions as either good or bad.
Trust and safety are the cornerstone of the work that we do. This is not just physical safety but also emotional safety because pain and suffering aren’t limited only to the physical realm of experience. Pain and suffering can also be experienced emotionally. The tiger that threatens us could very well be an emotional tiger. For this reason, we go very slow and use a variety of exercises and experiences to replace the traumatic experiences with similar but new safe and empowered experiences. We work with the body and not just the mind. It is part reprogramming the human computer, rewriting the code that determines our actions. It is part changing the old stories and writing new empowered ones. I am a fan of Recognition Primed Decision making (RPD). We used that a lot in training for critical incident management. We created mental slides in training scenarios that we could later draw from when faced with a similar situation in real life. As it relates to this work, we are lessening the impact of the old slides and replacing them with new, empowered slides. I encourage clients to write new scripts for their self talk and the reframing and retelling of their life stories.
Last week, I mentioned my dog that shook during thunderstorms and fireworks. She responded to the threat by going to her place of safety (her human) and she shook off the feelings of threat to her safety. She lacks the higher levels of human brain capability. She doesn’t create a story about it nor does she spiral into other emotions about it. I sometimes wish that we could do the same thing. Imagine turning off the advanced parts of our brain just for a while so that we can resolve that lingering trauma once and for all, not feel those spiraling emotions and not let those ineffective, old defense mechanisms continue to control our behavior.
I believe that this is what we are doing when we use those higher levels of brain capability (instead of turning them off) to do awareness and mindfulness practices. By living in the now, in the present moment, we can continually experience what is. By doing this, in a safe way, the stories of the past that keep us bound and limited will have less power and influence over our present experience of living.
This feels like a good place to stop for today, but first I would like to list a few of these false beliefs that we learn as children and cling to as they are reinforced in our lives so that you can reflect on them for when we meet again. These are excerpted from the book “Getting Real” by Susan Campbell, PhD.
#1- if you express your wants too strongly, you’ll get punished.
#2- you need to shut down your feelings to avoid making others uncomfortable.
#3- no matter how much you want something, you won’t get it
#4- you can avoid painful feelings by becoming judgmental or critical of others
#5- it’s not safe to talk back to an angry person. It’s better just to keep cool.