The conscious (thinking) brain and the subconscious (emotional) brain
Our brain is a complex and fascinating organ. The thinking (conscious) brain operates at an intellectual level, giving us perspective and good problem-solving capability. When it works in healthy harmony with our emotional (subconscious) brain, we function at our best and can be at our most robust and resilient in dealing with whatever life throws at us. Research has shown that the emotional brain processes around 2 million pieces of information every second. In contrast, the thinking brain can hold only between five and nine things in conscious awareness at any one time. So, of necessity, all the pieces of information that the emotional brain deals with (like blinking, regulating blood pressure, telling us when we need food, etc., as well as the range of feelings and thoughts which it generates) need to be filtered before being brought into conscious awareness. The brain’s own filter mechanism is capable of developing and retaining unhelpful negative processes, the three most usual culprits being deletion, distortion and generalisation.
Pattern-matching plays quite a part in interpreting reality. Any experience or stimulus is first pattern-matched to our subconscious memory stores to give meaning to it. This happens in a thousandth of a second and can generate a powerful emotional response, long before our conscious mind can apply its logic or reason to it a few thousandths of a second later (by which time the emotional response may have reduced or cut access to the thinking brain – as a well-known psychologist said, “high emotional arousal makes us stupid”). As pattern-matching is a crude and pretty sloppy process (after all, it’s just a quick scan and comparison to decide on an emotional level whether the experience has any potential for bringing us pain or pleasure), it is very easy for faulty pattern matches to be made. Just think of Pavlov’s dogs: they came to associate the sound of a bell with being fed and after a while they salivated when they heard the bell even though there was no food in sight. So the brain can easily delete, distort or generalise if there is a crude pattern to fit the experience.
How negative filters and pattern-matching can cause us unnecessary levels of distress
The negative filter processes are usually learned subconsciously rather than at any conscious level. They, along with pattern-matching, regulate the way we interpret what happens to us and around us. That interpretation may not fully or fairly reflect reality. They can make a difficult or awkward situation more distressing and more unhappy than necessary, and can actually prolong distress. In some cases they can even create distress where, on a balanced and realistic basis, distress is unnecessary.
The more emotionally distressed we are, the more likely it is that the filter will use these negative processes to generate what is called black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, reducing or cutting our access to the conscious (thinking) brain and therefore making a balanced and realistic evaluation of the situation hard to achieve. What’s more, these processes fuel yet more emotional distress. So, all in all, any of these negative processes result in an unbalanced and unrealistic view that fuels more intense unhappiness than we need to have and increases our likelihood of being unhappy for longer.
The good news and what to do
Once we are aware of any one or more of these tendencies, we can start to become more objective and can then begin challenging unnecessarily negative thoughts. At first it can seem a little artificial to think of another more helpful, balanced and realistic thought, but after a while it becomes almost instinctive. This is a bit like, when starting to read, you can only build a word letter by letter, but as you progress you find that you can see and read the whole word immediately. So by practising new ways of thinking and challenging the old ways, we can train the emotional brain to learn more healthy ways of responding – creating new pattern-matches and therefore reducing the emotional response. By creating a more balanced and realistic view through greater access to our thinking brain as a result of a more moderate emotional response, we can be more robust and resilient.
As 50% of our personality is learned, then there is always great scope to learn more healthy ways of responding simply by training the brain to help rather than hinder us. The other 50% is genetically hard-wired and since at least some of that 50% will operate in a healthy way in any case, we can always train the brain to have the upper hand.