We influence what we scan for: Part 1 [80]

By Dr. Keith Witt
April 4, 2013
Brains are wired to scan for threats, needs, wants, what’s familiar, and what’s novel. Brains monitor the environment like the National Security Agency monitors the airwaves. Scanning for needs and wants. If you’re thirsty, you become really interested in water—less worried about whether something to drink is your preferred diet coke and more eager to find some clean water. We thirst and need to drink now. We scan for what we need and want. Scanning for threats. Threat is trickier. We’re not usually aware of scanning for threats. Sure, if I’m walking alone at night through a seedy part of town, I’m suspicious of almost anyone, and especially other men (my brain knows women are much less of a threat). But usually we’re just going about our day, and threat shows up unexpectedly. It might be a car suddenly turning towards us out of a driveway, or an angry/hurt glance or tone from our husband or wife. I say “angry/hurt” instead of “angry or hurt,” because anger and hurt almost always happen at the same time. You hardly ever feel hurt without some accompanying anger (even if it is non-conscious), or angry without some accompanying hurt—though many of us feel either the hurt part or the angry part more strongly, and can disconnect from (dissociate) the hurt in our anger, or the anger in our hurt. That angry/hurt glance or tone is a big deal. If my nervous system associates a threat to me, it’s likely to activate a defensive state to protect me (see blogs #14, #22, #25, and #26). Defensive states involve amplified or numbed emotions (I get really worried, outraged, or blanked out), distorted perspectives (“How dare you feel injured or hurt by me?”), destructive impulses (attack you, blame myself, shut down, or take off), and diminished capacities for self-reflection and empathy (it’s hard to see myself entering a defensive state, and I don’t much care what’s going on in you if you’re threatening me). Human nervous systems naturally form habits of attention, emotion, action, and thought. Human nervous systems are exquisitely sensitive and incredibly powerful. Starting before birth, we begin learning thousands of reactions and routines that build on each other to form our sense of self and our habitual reactions to certain cues. Habitual reactions largely determine the world we live it—for example, we can be more optimistic or pessimistic. An optimistic reaction to a defensive state might sound something like, “This sucks but I can take care of it, and everything will probably work out OK.” Some of us tend to naturally react more positively and optimistically. I meet you and feel excited about getting to know you. I start my day expecting good things to happen. Some of us tend to be more pessimistic. I meet you and am instantly suspicious of your motives. Maybe you want to hurt or exploit me. I start my day dreading the problems to come. Relationships can be optimism heaven or pessimism hell. Think for a moment about how all these forces—scanning for needs and threats, having a supersensitive nervous system, and being biased more towards optimism or pessimism—influences your most intimate relationships with lover/spouse/children/friends/coworkers. Think how their scanning, super sensitivity, and relative optimism/pessimism influences you. A relationship can be heaven or hell depending on how we manage all these abilities, tendencies and forces. Not only that, but we often get so used to someone being around that we don’t even notice how much we’re affecting each other. Your husband wakes up, turns to you, and says “You look so pretty in the morning,” or “ I’ll bet this is going to be a good day,” or “Thanks so much for helping with the dishes last night.” Most of us light up when we hear stuff like this. On the other hand, maybe your husband wakes up, gets out of bed, and totally ignores you, or says, “You left the towel on the floor,” or “Try not to ding the car today like you did yesterday.” These things hurt, make him less safe (especially if you’re used to his negative comments), and make you less likely to say positives to him—it makes you more scared and stingy and more likely to enter defensive states. A big part of my work is helping people learn to shift from crabby and negative to joyful and positive, and lots of research has demonstrated that we can do this if we try. Next week, in We influence what we scan for, Part 2–Let’s all become more optimistic and grateful, we’ll talk about how to organize our attention and train our brains to be more optimistic and happy.

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