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An enlightening book I read, 7-½ Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett, explains how our brains are sadly mismatched for current times. Remember, Homo sapien brains evolved to be as they are 35,000-100,000 years ago. Living in caves, we were hunters and gatherers suffering constant physical and mental stress from the elements, starvation, and other humans. I’m sure it had its moments, but for the most part, life was neither life nor pleasant and we had little control over it. In order to survive, we had to be exquisitely attuned and reactive to threats in our environment.
That’s why our brains developed as predictors. If we could predict what would happen, we could have power over our lives and a better shot at surviving. In fact, the premise of Dr. Barrett’s book is that the function of thinking is to predict and that we do this through learning. She explains that these predictions don’t arise out of the blue. “When your predicting brain is wrong . . . it learns from its mistakes” (p. 76). Therefore, “Your brain predicts and prepares your actions using your past experiences.” (p. 78)
But, as one of my colleagues explains to her clients who have flash reactions, “that was then and this is now.” What this means is that a prediction will only be useful, that is, accurate, in the same circumstances as the original event. This explanation is similar to what I describe when I talk about recall and reality. In recall or memory, your brain captures your reaction in a specific time and place (say, when your father beat you as a child for sassing him). Your predictive brain sees Dad now and tells you to watch out because of your history with him. But at present, at 6 foot, you may tower over Dad who, at 91, can barely feed himself, never mind raise a hand to you.
And this is where prediction goes awry if we’re not careful. Once a situation changes, predictions become less useful. Dad had the power then and you have it now. The problem is that your amygdala (the brain’s storage area for intense memories) doesn’t know this. You will need to remind it that life is different now and that you’re safe. The truth is that whatever happened to you last year or 50 years ago, you’re likely safe now.
This is true in most situations. People freak out far too often—hosting or attending a party, giving a presentation, traveling to new places, meeting new people, being with difficult family members, and learning challenging activities. It’s not that something negative can’t happen. It can. But now you can handle it in a way you never could as a child so it is no longer a threat. Stop relying on outdated brain predictions. It’s time to update them with new information and make accurate predictions accordingly.
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