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What’s ‘Normal’ for a Brain?
In terms of the way the emotional brain works, you and a dog are not so different. Yes, humans have a more complex system than canines, but the mammalian brain has a lot of common features. The way you and your dog learn tasks and make emotional associations is not so different.
We humans go through the equivalent of puppy socialization, made more complicated by the existence of language.
When we are very young our brains are in a receptive, almost hypnotic state, and we aren’t yet capable of critical thinking. We don’t have the ability to tell fact from fiction, we just absorb whatever our caregivers teach us, both intentionally and accidentally. Early lessons are quickly internalized, cemented in as rules for living and belonging, even when they aren’t true or useful in your adult life.
This especially applies to emotional learning, such as “men who have been drinking are scary,” “love is conditional: I have to be perfect/good/attractive/quiet/loud/smart to be worthy of love,” or “crying is shameful/dangerous/weak.” When we learn something along the way that contradicts our rules, our brains often just make an exception instead of updating the rules to be more accurate.
Those emotional rules lead to behavior, such as approach or avoidance. Whatever we do is then subject to reinforcement.
If a behavior works for us, dopamine is released in our brains and we are more likely to try it again in the future. If it doesn’t get us what we need, eventually that behavior is extinguished: we change it up and try something else. Behavior exists to change the environment we are in, to help us meet our needs or satisfy our wants. As Susan Friedman, Ph.D. is fond of saying, “that’s what your behavior is for,” similar to how your eyes are for seeing or ears are for hearing. We offer behavior to produce some effect.
Thoughts are a type of behavior. No one else can see your mental behavior, but you can rest in awareness and observe your thoughts, so they are behavior. And as I mentioned in the habits section, thoughts are behaviors that can be reinforced (or not).
And guess what else? Our brains release dopamine when we come across a story that explains something, even when the story does not match consensus reality. That little AHA you get is a hit of dopamine. For example, if you text your boyfriend during the day and he doesn’t text back in the time you expect, your brain starts making up stories. He’s dead. He got hit by a car at lunch. He’s cheating on you with a bombshell barista because you aren’t attractive enough. AHA!!!
When you find a story that matches your internal story about yourself, it’s whoosh…dopamine! You’ve hit a small emotional jackpot (even if you’re sad about the story you just came up with). We have a winner! Your brain just reinforced your mental behavior of coming up with that story. That is, you’re more likely to come up with similar stories in the future, even if they contradict some of the facts. You might even go on a storywriting binge and come up with detailed scenarios based your worst fears.
For example, if one of your early lessons was that love is conditional, i.e., you feel you aren’t lovable as you are, then you need to do something or be a certain way to enough to earn it and keep it. Your thoughts tell you that you have to be pretty / rich / smart / pious / fun / interesting / adventurous / helpful / perfect to be loveable.
Then if your jealousy starts to spin a story that your boyfriend has found someone to replace you, someone who is more worthy of love, you get a dopamine hit when it clicks in with your shame trigger: “hey! That matches the Truth I learned as a kid (I’m not lovable). Let’s stick with that one.” Now you’re miserable. Kind of weird, how the human brain can reinforce the behavior of creating destructive thoughts!
Or maybe you start pondering ways to make him ashamed for not writing you back. When he texts back to say he was just in an afternoon work meeting, you might be relieved for the moment (or not), but it probably doesn’t make you question that “rule” that love is to be earned.
By the way, wanting someone to feel ashamed tells you about your own feelings at that moment. Shaming someone else (even in your head) is a good indicator that you might be feeling shamed by them. That could mean they really were trying to shame you or that in your gut, you feel like you don’t belong, and you’ve projected the emotion on them, meaning you think it comes from them, but it really comes from your own self-doubt.
If you ever have trouble knowing how you feel, try noticing how you want other people to feel. Our relationships are often mirrors that reflect our own feelings back.
So here’s an idea. Go “small” – temporarily unleash the cruel, hurting version of yourself, in secret. Write the person an unedited letter saying everything you want to tell them, but don’t send it. Say whatever mean nasty things your subconscious is spewing out. Set the letter aside and look at it later to see how you were trying to make them feel. That will give you an insight about how you are feeling, what emotion that person triggered in you. Chances are, it wasn’t their intention at all.
The up side of this “misery loves company” brain feature is that if we are feeling safe, loved, and satisfied, we also want other people to feel that, too. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to work on yourself, to allow yourself to know that you are enough, that you belong. Be one of the people who never abandons you.
Trust that your love is enough to keep the people who are truly good for you in your life.
Working through your own triggers is the best way to help your loved ones. You will be more present and more compassionate, plus they may learn from your example of allowing yourself to feel and express your emotions. Nondefensiveness is contagious. Learning how to live wholeheartedly and open yourself to authentic joy is a great way to help your whole tribe grow.
One of the best things you can do for yourself (and your tribe) is to note when something called “negativity bias” is skewing the way you perceive a situation.
Teenagers are well known for having a negativity bias: “my entire life and existence sucks!” when a particular moment in time doesn’t go their way. As we get older, people generally can differentiate between a bad moment and a bad life, but that’s not always the case (for example, when depression makes it hard to pull out of that bias). But even as adults, we all have a negativity bias, to a greater or lesser degree. Here’s an example:
Have you ever had a really great day, but then you make a mistake or someone says one hurtful thing to you (or something you think is hurtful). Suddenly it’s hard to remember the good stuff and life seems terrible for a second/minute/day/month/year.
The awesome part about brains is their plasticity; this is changeable. We can train ourselves recognize and overcome our negativity bias.
Once we know how our brains can naturally twist things, we can take it into account and see events more clearly. We can stop feeding attention to the downside of life and start helping ourselves take note of and remember the good stuff.
Having a negativity bias is not something to beat yourself up about, no more than being upset that your lungs breathe air and not water, or that you don’t see movement as well as dogs. Negativity bias is a totally normal ‘feature’ of how our human brains learn. Negative events have more ‘weight’ for us than positive or neutral events. We take note of the bad things that happen to us much more easily than the good things.
That comes in handy when learning not to be eaten by wild animals. Your ancient ancestors benefitted from quickly learning to avoid deadly situations.
Unfortunately, psychological safety releases pretty much the same set of neurochemicals as physical safety. So we have a bunch of negatively biased humans walking around, relating to each other from a place of not feeling safe. Just like dogs, feeling unsafe can come out as defensive behavior like avoidance or aggression. That is often not safe for the receiver of said behavior, so our lack of trust is proven right. It’s a vicious cycle.
When information comes in from our senses, our brains flag when things go wrong and don’t make a fuss when things are going well. For example, if you’re walking along on the grass, it would be inefficient for your brain to make a note and remember the soft grass experienced at every single step. So unless we deliberately focus on the present, it’s kind of just a background hum of easily forgotten non-danger. When something different comes along, the brain flags it—“hey, sharp rocks here!”
So the map of our experience isn’t filled in with equal levels of detail. The danger spots have a lot of detail and the safe spots are kind of vague, kind of like a map that hasn’t fully downloaded. Maybe a few really amazing happy experiences stand out, but the bulk of your day doesn’t stand out in memory.
Fortunately, we can deliberately change what information we store about our experiences, to combat the negativity bias. In his book, “Hardwiring Happiness,” Rick Hanson describes a process called “taking in the good,” which I’ll describe in another lesson in this section.
For now, just take note of two things. First, we are biologically biased to keep track of what’s wrong, i.e., when something needs to change in order to get back to what we expect or desire. Second, that bias just changes the probability of seeing good versus bad and with practice, we can change that bias.
So while we are more likely to naturally focus on what’s gone wrong, we can train our brains to do something different. Not so different from training a border collie, but this one is in our heads.
How cool is that?!