I attended an excellent lecture recently. The speaker explained how we can become emotionally hijacked and “head over the waterfalls” to behave in historically patterned ways, without any volitional thought whatsoever.
Behaving in historically patterned ways is a good thing when it involves something like walking. Initially, the motor behaviours involved in walking require a lot of concentration to execute. Small children are clumsy as they learn to walk. Everything is a challenge. Lifting their feet. Taking the next step. But fairly quickly we master walking – and even sprinting – without any conscious effort.
Same thing goes for driving. Remember when you had to look where to put the key before you could start the ignition? How you had to think to shift the car into drive? How you had to concentrate to change lanes on the highway? But now, you sometimes arrive home without remembering which road you took or any of the decisions you made along the way.
Both of these activities – learning to walk and learning to drive – develop the way that water erodes a path through rock. With the first rain drop falls, water follows gravity, taking the path of least resistance. Then gravity acts on that rain drop and plunges it over a precipice.
Given enough rain and enough time, a groove becomes worn in the rock. The groove becomes deeper and deeper until a water fall develops. Then, there is no question about where the rain will travel when it lands on the ground. It finds the groove and travels over the waterfall.
So it goes with our brains. Activities that once took tremendous conscious effort become automatic as well-worn paths are created in our brains. Neurons are cells in our brains. Neuronal pathways (meaning pathways made of neurons) get laid down in the brains much the same way that the flow of water creates a waterfall over time.
With repetition, neuronal pathways become more deeply etched, and we follow those grooves without conscious thought.
What’s interesting about a waterfall is that it’s difficult to resist and swim against the flow. You get pulled along by the current and are unable to resist. There isn’t time to react because the current is so strong and you’re swept along so quickly. In an instance, you plummet over the waterfall.
And so it goes with the brain. Well etched grooves in the brain – or well-developed neuronal pathway – get followed in much the same manner as a body being carried by the current. Once we find ourselves in a well etched groove, we get swept along and “over we go” as well.
Here’s an example that illustrates the ideas we’re discussing. It’s a tough example to read, but it illustrates the concepts.
(All identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.)
Amanda is a woman that was sexually abused as a child by her grandfather for several years. To survive the abuse, knowing she couldn’t fight or run because she was so small, her body and her mind would shut down. She would go into hypoarousal and submit. Being able to access this defense mechanism allowed her to survive.
Amanda has little to no conscious memory of the years of sexual abuse she endured, but her body remembers.
Recently, a man Amanda barely knows touched her in an unwanted way. He ran his hands through her hair without her consent. Like a drop of rain falling on a rock, her reaction followed the neuronal pathway that is a well-worn groove in her brain. She immediately dropped into submit. She was in hypoarousal and shut down.
This response makes sense when you know about neuronal pathways and Amanda’s incest history. Amanda couldn’t say no. She couldn’t tell the man his advances were unwanted. She couldn’t fight. All she could do was submit and head over the waterfalls.
This all sounds rather bleak. If our brains create neuronal pathways that plunge us over a waterfall, how can a survivor of incest learn to defend herself as an adult?
First, she needs to know about the well-worn pathways in her brain. She needs to know that a drop of rain that falls in the vicinity of the waterfalls can cause her to go into hypoarousal. This knowledge is important so she doesn’t hold herself responsible for how she responds when she is the recipient of unwanted touch.
Amanda also needs to know that she can develop new neuronal pathways in her brain to counter the well-worn pathways she utilized as a child to survive. With practice, she can learn to respond to challenges in new ways, that lead to outcomes that better serve her as an adult.
The point of this blog post is that you will learn to be more patient and gentle with yourself when you find yourself going over the waterfall, so to speak.
The second point, is that you will know that you can develop new neuronal pathways that you can access, as an alternative to using the well-worn pathways you used as a child that no longer serve you well.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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