The Hidden Intelligence of Our Emotional Brain
(This week’s resource is a wonderful, wonderful article called “Navigating Life Using the Hidden Intelligence of Our Emotional Brain.” Excerpted and adapted by Rick Hanson’s also wonderful resource The Wise Brain Bulletin. I’ve done several trainings with the co-author Bruce Ecker, co-director of the Coherence Psychotherapy Institute and have incorporated techniques from his trainings and his book Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminate Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation into my own trainings nationwide.
The article is an easy read, though it doesn’t offer the solutions offered in the trainings. It’s an excellent introduction into the workings, and working with, your own emotional brain.)
Navigating Life Using the Hidden Intelligence of Our Emotional Brain
By Robin Ticic, Elise Kushner, and Bruce Ecker
What kind of a world is this that we live in? Is it a friendly place? Or a scary place? How do I win people’s love and attention? By obeying them? Or by getting good grades? Or by getting kicked out of school, or fired from my job? Or by being funny and clever? Do I have the right to say “no” to an authority figure? What’s my purpose in life?
Beliefs about such basic questions concerning the way the world works are as many and varied as the people holding those beliefs. And much of the time, these convictions are largely unconscious, often developed early in life and through deep, emotional experiences.
If four-year-old Melanie asks her mother “Mommy, why don’t you like Uncle Fred?” and her mother looks annoyed and abruptly changes the topic, or she asks her father “Why are you crying?” and her father says angrily, “I am not crying!” Melanie may learn a “truth” about the world that talking to people about feelings is a bad thing and that she herself must be at fault for annoying her parents.
In these moments of learning what seem to be fundamental truths, Melanie is adapting to the world around her. Adapting to our environment is an inborn skill, necessary for survival.
We are always adapting, as individuals and as a society. For example, today’s younger generation has adapted its communication strategies to the availability of new technologies. An unemployed person adapts to having less income. Our bodies adapt to increased usage by building more muscle. In the same way, our emotional self adapts by learning how the people and the world around us function.
And most of our adaptive learnings get formed and stored outside of our awareness, just as with Melanie. The stronger the emotion that Melanie is feeling as her memory circuits register a particular learning, the stronger and more urgent that learning will be in shaping her subsequent behavior, mood and thoughts. She will be influenced by this non-conscious learning later in life, without being aware of what is influencing her choices, actions and moods.
So people’s behavior and feelings are governed largely by unconscious assumptions about the world-learnings that are outside of their awareness.
People’s actions or reactions, based on their unconscious emotional learnings, may be highly satisfying, as when secure attachments in childhood have set up positive learnings that enable a person to have deep, meaningful relationships later in life.
But people also carry learnings that formed according to original patterns of distress, and such learnings maintain actions or reactions that can be problematic in some way.
Let’s imagine Melanie as a teenager and in her first relationship with a boyfriend. She senses that he is unhappy about something, and she fears it may have something to do with her. But unconsciously she “knows” that asking him is not an option, because she learned in her childhood that that goes very badly. So, as distressing as it is to believe and feel that she is at fault somehow, her distress remains private and unspoken, and she doesn’t take the risk of making him angry by asking what’s really going on.
From the outside, such behavior patterns may appear “irrational.” It would be easy to label Melanie as “insecure” or even “paranoid.” But Melanie’s choices have a deep, hidden sense outside of her awareness. She doesn’t even see them as choices. It’s simply “how it is.”
On the surface, other people’s behavior and actions may sometimes appear to us to be “irrational,” “arbitrary,” “maladaptive,” or even “pathological.” But remember that the underlying, unquestioned assumptions and out-of-awareness beliefs were originally formed with adaptive intent.
This ability to pick up cues quickly and adapt to the world around us has a fantastic logic all its own. It all makes sense in some way. Nevertheless, people do often want to make changes in their lives. They want to solve their problems; they want to grow and change. As much as Melanie’s reactions make deep emotional sense based on what she learned about the world, she may some day wish for deep change in her relationships and in the way she interacts with people.
The science of emotional learning sends us a message that is twofold: Deep, lasting change that allows people to transform long-standing, ingrained patterns is possible! And the deep, lasting change of behaviors and habits requires discovering the emotional learnings at the root of those patterns.
Until very recently, neuroscientists believed that emotional learnings- such as Melanie’s knowledge that discussing feelings is bad-were stored permanently in our brains- meaning locked in with no key. They believed that if we learned something deeply in childhood, then we could never truly unlearn and eliminate it from our mind and memory. Neuroscientists were convinced that the best we could do was to learn new habits that override and suppress the old ones. This would mean that Melanie would need to practice hard at asserting herself and asking uncomfortable questions, even though her inner voices were screaming “no, no, no.” Many people still hold these beliefs about the permanence of emotional learnings.
But recent neuroscience research shows how even the most stubborn of old, unquestioned assumptions and learnings can, in fact, be erased and replaced with completely new emotional learnings that, in the present, serve us better than the original ones. We now know that the brain not only has the ability to create such learnings; it also has the ability, under particular conditions, to dissolve-or unlearn-them.
This article provides a glimpse of the keys that help us to unlock the emotional brain.
It is the ability to understand your most important people-yourself included-that makes deep, satisfying relationships possible. As we will see, the more we understand about our process of emotional learning, the deeper our understanding of people becomes. The human brain is a remarkable organ that continues to change and learn our whole life long in response to our experiences. This ability of the brain to reorganize itself based on usage is called neuroplasticity.
Our brains are great for cognitive skills such as paying attention, memorizing facts, and analyzing patterns. But our brains do so much more: they have also been storing emotional knowledge for our whole lives. It is the emotional quality of experiences that our brains use for selecting what is important to learn.
And this process takes place largely outside of conscious awareness, in other words: implicitly. The emotional brain forms implicit constructs-particular units of learning-about how the world causes suffering or pleasure. These are a person’s “emotional learnings,” learnings that have an emotional component or quality to them. We refer to them as implicit emotional learnings.
When we speak of the “emotional brain,” we are referring to emotional functions that take place in the brain. There are several different physical regions of the brain involved in its emotion functions. The physical brain is extremely complex, with specialists studying its molecular structure, its synaptic structure, its network structure, its evolutionary history, and many other aspects. And knowledge about the relationship between the brain’s physical structure and its functions is growing daily, but still holds many secrets.
So, when we use the term “emotional brain,” think of the brain’s ability to store deeply and firmly anything it experiences and learns with emotional intensity.
Although the emotional brain functions largely outside of awareness, it is constantly making sense of the world. Such meaning-making is a basic human need and motivation.
Five-year-old Peter is the youngest of the Miller family’s three children. As a baby, he was alert and curious about everything, a real little detective. He experienced that when he made certain facial expressions (which we call smiling, but he didn’t know that), he got a lot of loving attention, something he needed, and he learned well that this is “how the world is. If I smile, people love me.” Peter experienced how excited and happy people became when he made verbal sounds like those he heard around him. He also learned that this is “how the world is. If I talk, people are happy with me.” At the age of five, Peter smiles and talks a lot, and most adults perceive him as charming and happy. In fact, he wakes up early in the morning, bubbling over with talk.
How Peter behaves makes emotional sense based on his inner constructs, learned very early, about how the world is.
The Millers’ next-door neighbors, the Smiths, also have a five-year-old son, Martin. Peter and Martin play together often. Martin also experimented widely with verbal sounds when he was a baby. What he experienced was that he got more love and acceptance when he was quiet than when he was loud. In fact, the louder he got, the more likely it was that he would be put in a room with the door closed and separated from the rest of the family. Martin learned and stored this as “how the world is: If I’m quiet, then people will love me and keep me together with them. If I’m loud, then I will be all alone.” At the age of five, Martin is a quiet boy who is often afraid to speak up for his own needs. Instead, he often gets stomach aches when his needs remain unfulfilled.
How Martin behaves makes emotional sense based on his actual life experiences and his inner constructs, learned very early, about how the world is.
People are, of course, a complex mixture of nature and nurture, genetics plus environment. We don’t mean to imply with these examples that Peter and Martin developed solely based on their families’ reactions to their verbal experiments when they were babies. That’s only one piece of the puzzle, and Peter and Martin were both born with their own personalities and predispositions. But their environments have shaped their deepest beliefs, convictions, and unquestioned assumptions, and this is the area we’ll be digging into more deeply.
What people do makes complete emotional sense based on their constructs about “how the world is.” This is the concept of emotional coherence. We form constructs that allow us to anticipate how our environment will behave so that we can adapt to it, to minimize our suffering and maximize our well-being. Our constructs have survival value. And such constructs are fully coherent, not illogical or arbitrary.
As we interact with others, we don’t normally know what the constructs are that are generating people’s behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and even bodily sensations. So such actions and reactions can easily appear irrational or self-defeating. And a person’s emotional learnings-those unquestioned assumptions-can become hidden obstacles to success, satisfaction, fulfillment, or well-being, as we saw earlier in Melanie’s inability to ask her boyfriend direct questions, and in Martin’s stomach aches when he has an unmet need.
How can we access what’s in the unconscious mind and really understand a person, though? That may sound complex-and it is, because we can only ever approach understanding another person completely. But when we become accustomed to thinking within a mindset of emotional coherence, when we practice remembering that a person’s actions and reactions do make deep sense, it becomes a more straightforward concept and begins to feel simpler.
This framework of emotional coherence for understanding people is not only a rewarding, healthy way to approach our interactions. It’s also an extremely effective route to lasting change in our own ingrained, limiting patterns.
We refer to deep, lasting change as transformational change. Transformational change occurs at the deepest level-at the level of emotional learnings. That means: changes at the root of a person’s behavior or feelings.
Emotional change is possible because our brain remains “plastic”-meaning capable of change- throughout our entire life. In fact, even many of our genetic “givens” are plastic too, because a person’s environment and experiences play a significant role in modifying the actual expression of genes.
For example, two people may have an equal genetic predisposition to gain weight easily, but one grows up in a family with moderate eating habits and maintains a healthy weight, while the other learns a pattern of heavy overeating and has an ongoing struggle with weight gain. ise Brain Bulletin (9, 5) * 10/15 * page 7
In other words, the interplay of nature and nurture is turning out to be much more complex than was previously believed, as developments in the field of epigenetics are showing. This is good news, because it means we can have more influence on the nurture realm than we previously thought was possible.
Lasting, Liberating Shifts
When we listen acceptingly, aiming to understand the deeper coherence in what others are experiencing, we support people in discovering their own deep learnings that underlie their reactions, behaviors and feelings. Once those learnings are uncovered and brought into a person’s conscious awareness, the person’s brain is then in a position to modify them in favor of new learnings that are in better alignment with that person’s greater well-being.
Jack Smith used to criticize his wife Ellen quite frequently for picking up and putting away everything-or what felt to him like everything-as soon as he laid it down somewhere. He started reading the weekly news magazine, left it on the coffee table, and came back to look for it a half-hour later, but it was gone. He took off his watch in the evening and left it next to the computer. When he looked for it the next morning, it wasn’t there. This longstanding habit of Ellen’s made him absolutely furious! He told her clearly how neurotic he found her behavior to be, but it didn’t change. In fact, it seemed that the more he criticized her, the more pronounced that behavior became.
Then Jack learned about emotional coherence. The next time something he was using disappeared, in the midst of his frustration with Ellen he managed to hold on to his assumption of coherence and said, “I wish I understood what this need to tidy up is really about for you. That sure would help me live with it, at least.”
Then came the dramatic year when Ellen was diagnosed with cancer. She fought bravely, took a year off from work, and has now been symptom-free for five years. The experience changed not only Ellen, but Jack as well, and also their relationship. Ellen decided to get to the bottom of certain personal dilemmas she had been struggling with for years. She remembered Jack’s comments that her tidying must make sense in some way, and discovered that her need to maintain household order and tidiness had started around the time that she lost her mother at a young age. That behavior gave her a kind of support and structure in her life and even a sense of ongoing connection with her mother. It had deep emotional coherence. She explained this to Jack, and his view of her behavior as senseless evaporated, and so did his vexation over it.
So although Jack still doesn’t like that habit of hers any better than he did before, he now accepts it as something very meaningful to Ellen that she needs. He no longer criticizes her for her behavior, and he has made some adjustments in where he puts his belongings. And interestingly, now that Ellen feels more accepted as she is, she has started asking herself whether she really needs to clean up after Jack. She has become somewhat more tolerant of his habits around the house, too.
Accepting a person is not the same as liking everything about that person or the person’s behavior. Accepting a person means only knowing that the person is functioning in accordance with his or her emotional truths about how to have well-being. Perhaps you have acquaintances or colleagues whose behaviors you do not necessarily like, but whom you can accept and treat respectfully nonetheless.
Dire circumstances often push us into deeper inquiry and self-awareness-but we need not wait for a crisis. The ongoing search for emotional coherence in oneself and others is a rich and fascinating adventure! A healthy, respectful relationship-whether with oneself or with another person-is based on acceptance of a person as the individual he or she is, and the assumption of emotional coherence in each and every individual is extremely helpful in developing such acceptance.
Robin Ticic is Director of Training and Development of the Coherence Psychology Institute and co-author of Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. She is in private practice near Cologne, Germany, specializing in clinical supervision and training of therapists. She has served as a psychologist for the Psychotraumatology Institute of the University of Cologne, and is author of the parenting guide How to Connect with Your Child published in English and German.
Elise Kushner is Assistant Director of Development of the Coherence Psychology Institute and a certified systemic coach (Systemische Gesellschaft e.V. 2007) and trainer in Cologne, Germany. Elise has decades of experience in adult education at both large corporations and small organizations. She has developed and held courses in interpersonal communication, coaching competencies for leaders, and gender awareness, and has been a guest lecturer at the Furtwangen University. Elise has served as consultant for multiple authors in her areas of expertise. She is also a composer and choral director, with an academic degree in music.
Bruce Ecker is Co-Director of the Coherence Psychology Institute, co-originator of Coherence Therapy and coauthor of Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation, the Coherence Therapy Practice Manual & Training Guide, and Depth Oriented Brief Therapy: How To Be Brief When You Were Trained To Be Deep and Vice Versa. Clarifying how transformational change takes place is the central theme of Bruce Ecker’s clinical career. Since 2006 he has driven the clinical field’s recognition of memory reconsolidation as the core process of transformational change.