SEEING – Part Two
Prefrontal Cortex to the Rescue
You’ve got to be kidding me! You mean that my motivations, no matter how conscious they seem, are scripted by early experiences that I can’t recall?
Well, not exactly, although those significant childhood moments are influential.
It’s too simplistic to attribute any behavior to just one cause. For example, our inherent temperament has a large part to play in how we react to things. As early as four months of age, infants display whether they have a temperament shaped by a reactive amygdala (the danger/alarm/survival center of the brain) in which case they are more likely to become introverts, or a less reactive one, leading to greater ease with novelty and challenge, and more inclined toward being extroverted. So in the great nature vs. nurture debate, the answer is that both our temperaments and our key experiences have a complex, intertwined influence on how we experience ourselves and the world.
One indication that implicit memories may be racing down the neural pathways is when our reaction is bigger than a situation warrants. This measure is very subjective, and our reactions will feel completely justified in the moment. It’s usually in retrospect when we realize we were hijacked by intense emotions and overreacted. And “bigger” reactions can take many forms including an angry outburst, tearful withdrawal, or stunned, bewildering confusion.
The good news is that we are not at the mercy of our current neural programming or stuck with our temperaments. We can modify our reactions, calming amygdala instincts and creating new neural pathways, when we intentionally engage our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex manages emotions, gleaning their valuable message and then integrating thoughts and feelings in a flexible, discerning way. Building neural pathways is like creating a stained glass window, crafting each small piece of glass, one at a time, and gradually fitting them together into a pattern that becomes whole and beautiful. So with each experience that you intentionally bring new awareness to, you can shape, bit by bit, your whole and beautiful life.
The next SEEING post will provide specific tools for engaging your prefrontal cortex when distressing emotions, super-charged from past experiences, grab hold of you.