i.e., ‘learning’ is both beneficial and harmful to us.
By the time you’re my age, or if you already are, you’ll probably understand what I am about to write now.
‘Learning’ is a process by which we perceive a stimulus, record it in our memory, and do some analysing on it.
So, imagine someone said something to you, for example, “You are Meyer The Liar” [only because I’m watching VEEP these days]. How do you process this information? We’ll start with the basic right now; suppose you’re a six year old child who has no vocabulary and have no clue what the term ‘liar’ means.
Step 1 — Stimulus: Someone called you a ‘liar’.
Step 2 — Learning: An audience reacted badly to it, so, you understand that the word ‘liar’ is negative; Liar=Bad. People pity you, try to make you feel better, say that you’re not a liar, the other kid is probably just jealous of you or can’t think straight.
Step 3 — Emotion: You start to tear up, you understand someone called you something bad, an uncomfortable emotion gets attached to a word. You feel insulted, you feel sad; Liar=Sad.
Till now what has happened is a ‘stimulus’ (sound = liar) has entered your senses (ears) and got recognised in your working memory. It got passed on to your frontal cortex where you put meaning to it (liar = bad) based on the input you got from your environment. Eventually it got relayed to your brain’s emotional centre (amygdala) where the stimulus got attached to an emotion (makes me sad). Therefore → Liar=Bad=Sad :[
[Yeah, brain puts a lot of work in even the smallest of things.]
Step 4 — Reaction: You realise that the situation is not good for you, and you can ‘react’ in one of the few ways available to you:
(1) Run Away
(2) Confront the bad kid who called you a liar in the first place
(3) Confront the bad kid and run away
[Now, I know a lot of you would be expecting a very calm and cool ‘response’ like “oh you could just talk to the bad kid and sort things out” — no! life doesn’t work that way, we’re introducing a concept when a child is a kid, they’re not mature enough to ‘respond’ to a situation well, they can only ‘react’]
So, you’ve already teared up; you, in-turn call the other kid a liar; as he is wrong in calling you one, hence he’s the liar ultimately, and of course you run away from there.
But, has our brain stopped at this step?
NO! Our brain never stops protecting us, NEVER!
Our brain is busy in a process called ‘LEARNING’.
After attaching an emotion to the word ‘liar’, our brain (amygdala) has sent this word back to some other part of our brain (frontal lobe), to tell the brain to make it a fucking memory, a ‘LONG-TERM’ Memory. Obviously, won’t take a genius to guess that the more intense the emotion, the longer the memory stays. So, if this ‘sadness’, perhaps ‘shame’ is now attached to a particular word ‘liar’, it will stay much much longer in your memory, even without you knowing, longer than probably any other neutral or happy memory.
[Sad news for humans is that we’re innately designed for survival so any negative memory, incident, threat etc. always makes a place more permanent in our brain than any of its happier counterparts. More sad news, the smarter you are, the more unhappy you’re bound to be. Doesn’t mean you’re doomed, just that you have to work twice as hard to keep yourself happy.]
So, anyway, back to the point. Our beloved brain, which only wants the good for us, always; has, in yet another way, decided to protect us. By LEARNING that LIAR = BAD = SAD = REACT BADLY & RUN AWAY. Sadly so, brain is not smart enough to be able to tweak it, unless it sees how to.
So the next time someone calls you a ‘Liar’ in a heated argument, guess what’s going to happen?
NEXT PART of LEARNING → DOING!
No brownie points for guessing, your brain will try to protect you from the shame and sadness, and you will ‘react’ badly, say a few bad things, and probably storm off.
Now, people expect a different kind of ‘response’ (not such a reaction) if someone who said this (called you a liar) is in-fact a loved one. But the thing is, brains are not naturally wired to see ‘love=safety’ as status quo, these little weird guards of ours are, however, wired to see ‘something bad said against me’=threat=react & eject.
[and why not, love != safety anymore these days, especially not in this highly independent world of ours; where no-one, from your parents to your partner, says it out loud, I love you and I will stay. Relationships are getting shorter, and divorce rates rising everyday. Love is always a bargain, you do something wrong, and they’re out; you always have to ‘earn’ it, so then, isn’t it better to protect yourself, if no-one or nothing else does, even against those you love? End of philosophical rant… but much appreciation to the brain.]
This is when we say we acted like a ‘child’ or ‘immature’, because we let our emotions think for us (amygdala), rather than our brain (frontal-cortex), and do in fact act as ‘the child who had first learnt to react to such things that threaten us or make us sad.’
Obviously again, zero brownie points for guessing the few points that I am about to state now:
(1) Our amygdala (emotional thinking) develops when we’re kids, our smarter Frontal Cortex (rational thinking) finishes developing till we’re about 25–30 years of age (aka maturity). What does it mean? It means that we’re used to making emotional decisions, and ‘reacting’ rather than ‘responding’.
(2) The amygdala takes about 6 seconds to ‘react’ whereas the frontal cortex may take up to 20 seconds to ‘respond’. So, if you do feel you’re running out of time, with someone, something, argument, relationship, you’re bound to start reacting rather than responding.
(3) Our amygdala takes charge more often when we’re deprived of sleep, or under stress. Our brain tries to make a quicker decision and hence depends on emotions, rather than thought.
So what happens when someone or something triggers you; for example, someone you’re dating says something your ex used to say, or does something your ex used to do — BAM! You get worked up and you react!
[That’s how learning works — what good is ‘learning’ if you haven’t ‘learnt’ anything from the experience.]
Obviously, you can regret it all you want later, but I mean, especially if you’ve seen a lot of stress in life, or experienced it lately, the way you respond (rather react) is not going to change overnight.
That’s why people suggest mundane things like:
- gardening etc.
Because these things, when done on a daily basis, rewire our brains to make it understand that we’re not in threat, or running out of time, so please don’t follow your ‘childhood script’ and react the next time, rather think and respond… maturely, like an adult.
Sigh. Easier said than done.
What can be done in the meantime?
We can just try to remember that everyone is a child inside, and try avoiding using ‘negative’ words that can take someone back to an uncomfortable place.
[Again, easier said than done.]
Or suffer the consequences — everyone suffers, the person who said what they said and could never understand why they got such a bad reaction; and the person who felt bad but never could say why did they feel so strongly about it, but just followed ‘react & eject’.
Best Case Scenario is obviously a place where we, ourselves, move into becoming an adult, not ‘reacting’ to everything, and also be that way toward another, and not ‘triggering’ anyone.
P.S. Our brains want the best for us, but our brains take time to catch up — especially if our senses are devoid of assurances and affirmations.
unless, ofcourse, you tell your brain, again and again, that you’ve changed the plan.