We all know that our our emotional issues can cause us to respond in ways that sometimes feel irrational and perhaps even harmful, particularly when faced with certain triggers. But why is that? In this video we will demystify our emotional responses and behaviors and understand why our brains evolved to run more on ‘learned instincts’ than on logic. These instincts go by many names: schemas, emotional conditioning, implicit memory. Whatever name we use, it is deeply important that we understand this aspect of our nature, as in truth it tends to run the show (especially when we are triggered!). Once we understand the hidden logic that drives our emotional issues we can begin to develop more compassion towards our emotional reactions. So let’s dive in!
Transcript for Our Emotional Reactions: What Are They Based On?
Our Emotional Brain
So in this video I’d like to explain what emotions are, or more broadly how our brain processes information that isn’t just logical or conscious. Because the truth is we all know that we are constantly having emotional reactions to things and I believe it’s really important to know what that’s based on. But for a moment let’s forget about emotion and just talk about the brain because the brain has more than one way of processing information. Now rationality or logic is the one we are most familiar with because it’s the most conscious and purposeful. We really love rationality because we have control over it. It allows us to solve new and complex problems plus logic is less reflexive and reactive so it’s our most flexible system.
That being said, I’d like to make the case today that the non-logical ways in which we process information are just as valid and perhaps even more important for our survival. We colloquially call these reactions our “emotional reactions,” and while we tend to think of them as illogical, I’d like to make the case that they are not. I mean they may be non-logical, they’re not logically derived, but they are based on something that is just as smart and that is lived experience. For these parts of the brain, the proof is in the pudding.
The Hidden Logic of Our Emotional Reactions
This is a really robust system that allows us to move through the world without dying. I learn: hey I did this and I got hurt, so I’m not going to do that again. I may not know the logical reason I got hurt. In fact, these parts may not care about logic or reasoning at all. They just know this happened and this was the outcome. So I’m going to learn through my experience not to do that again or to do more of this other thing that seemed to produce a good outcome. So through millions of repetitions of experience the brain learns: what to associate to what.
It’s kind of like in classical conditioning we learned in school where the dog learns to associate the bell with the arrival of food. So now the bell means the arrival of food. There’s no rational reason that a bell should mean food or that perhaps asking for what I need should mean getting hurt, but if that’s what we see happen in our lived experience, our brain will hook that up into a pattern. Not only of what to expect, like bell and food but also of what to do next. Like how do I need to adapt to respond to the situation to get the best outcome.
I have a sensory input, my brain learns what’s about to happen next and it also learns just through trial and error what should I do in that situation? So a little map of reality is set up which we call a schema, that takes the sensory input, what I expect is going to happen next and how I should respond. This all gets established through conditioning basically, through creating a map of reality that’s non-conscious and lives in a deeper part of our brain.
These networks of associations can be quite complex. Perhaps asking for what I need is associated with getting hurt. To some degree just people in general might become associated with getting hurt. Or the smell of the person that hurt me the most might be associated with getting hurt. It’s really important that our brain makes these connections and links up reality in this way because it is a very efficient way of predicting and preparing for life.
Emotions are Fast, Logical Thinking is Slow
The truth is as much as we love rationality it takes so much time and energy to come to a rational, logical conclusion and decision. I think of rationality as processing information through a straw. It takes specific pieces of information and then works them with a lot of effort and purposeful attention. Whereas the non-logical ways that our brain works is like processing an ocean’s amount of information quickly and efficiently.
This is really important because when these schemas, these little maps of reality are hooked up then as soon as something happens then everything is immediately laid out for us. There’s a sensory input, we know what to expect, how to respond, how to even shift our bodies to do the actions that we are preparing to do. So sensory input and BOOM everything is laid out. That’s a very efficient system that allows us, particularly in moments of danger, to respond effectively. The other beautiful thing about these schemas is that they can work in the background non-consciously.
Can you imagine if we had to be consciously aware of every decision or information processing that our brain was doing? Even things like driving to work are partly possible because we can automate so much of that. I mean picture if you had to drive to work, if you had to make every turn and look over your shoulder because you rationally realized that that was the best idea, versus just knowing through experience and not even having to think about it? I know I’ve had moments where I’ve driven to work and I could barely remember even getting there because it was so easy for my brain to do that, I didn’t even have to be aware of everything I was doing.
Logic is Too Slow for Survival
While I know we love awareness and being in the present moment it would actually be exhausting to have to show up to every moment learning fresh, figuring our as if for the first time what to do. And that is true particularly for moments of danger. Why? Because in moments of danger it’s important that we respond quickly, we don’t want to overthink our movement, going into fight or flight, protecting our self, so especially in moments of danger these more implicit, they are in the background developed through experiential learning and through our schemas of what to expect and how to respond, that part tends to kick in more when we feel threatened. Or even just under stress.
This is why when we are under stress it can feel like swimming upstream to try to slow down and think through it and be rational. Which I realize is really frustrating. It’s really frustrating when we feel highly stressed or highly emotional, how it can feel like: why am I doing what I’m doing? Because again the less conscious and purposeful parts of our brain are wanting to take over. That being said, this is what has helped us survive as a species.
Our Emotional Reactions Are a Window Into Our Unconscious Wiring
So it’s not that these processes are bad, it’s just to learn how to interface with them in a way that we can understand how we are wired and adjust it to be truly adaptive. What I think is fascinating, therefore, when we track our body and our emotional response it’s like a little window where we can peek into how the less conscious parts of our brain are making sense of this moment. It even gives us some idea of how this moment compares to our past or prime our brain for how we should respond. So I find that really fascinating especially for people who have high emotional intelligence or emotional awareness, that that actually in itself can be some data into just how our system is set up. What is the world that we unconsciously expect to be coming toward us and how have we learned to respond.
So I hope this explanation of our emotional reactions makes some sense. I think it’s just so important that we understand some of the basic systems within our mind because I believe when we understand something it’s harder to judge it. If we can appreciate that our emotional issues rest on deeply learned associations and expectations of how the world works, then we can see that our emotional issues, to a degree, really make sense. The fact that our emotional issues make sense is the topic for the next video, so let’s go there next.