What Freud Didn't Know

Emotional well-being through neuroscience and psychology.

Normal Brains Create Most of Our Psychological Problems

A bit neurotic at times? It's likely that evolution designed you to be that way.

Freud was a physician and physicians treat maladies-pathologies-things that occur when our bodies, or in this case our minds, malfunction. Although, a growing body of research suggests that brains, doing exactly what they were designed to do, can create significant psychological problems, we still hang on to the questionable assumption that if we are having psychological problems it means that our brain must be somehow misfiring.

In my last blog, I described how a certain type of memory-memories mediated by the amygdala region of the brain, called emotion memories-- seem to play a central role in many common psychological difficulties. When (unconsciously) recalled, an emotion memory can impose inappropriate assumptions and emotions onto our present experiences and inhibit our judgment; doing all of this without our conscious awareness--we don't know that we are under the influence of such a memory. This blog addresses, why a normally functioning brain would be designed to seemingly sabotage us in this way.

Our brains evolved as mechanisms for survival. An emotion memory includes emotions and assumptions associated with previous painful events. Later, under circumstances similar to the original learning situation, the emotion memory is "automatically" (unconsciously) recalled, readying our body for a defensive maneuver: fight, flight or freeze.

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Let's imagine that, a few million years ago, a primate ancestor of ours is out hunting and gathering with a group, and this ancestor notices, in the tall grass, an orange color and some unusual movement right before a tiger attacks one of her companions. This experience would sear an emotion memory into the brain of our ancestor. Later a particular rustling sound, or a flash of orange might cause her body to tense, experience fear (anxiety is another word for this) and she is primed ito act in a protective manner.

This emotional reaction wouldn't be enough to protect her. She would also need to have some sort of image about what was going on, an "implicit memory" that suggests that a hidden danger may be present, that attacking is probably not the best choice; in fact freezing or running would be better. Furthermore, survival is most likely if the more reasonable and analytic parts of her brain are inhibited. Reacting in a slower, more deliberate fashion to possible danger, by today's standards is preferable. However, evolutionary survival is much better served if one's body is immediately prepared for danger and one's mind assumes that danger is present. When there is a chance of danger, taking the time to asses a situation and to rationally assume that it is probably safe is not the best prescription for survival.

Even though the world in which we now live is very different from the world in which our brains evolved, the modern brain still attempts to protect us in the old ways. For example, being included in a hunting and gathering group was a very important factor that promoted early human survival. Exclusion from the group meant loss of crucial help in finding food, shelter, mates and defending against various threats. As a result, our brains activate painful emotions when we get rejected. If a rejection is painful enough it will create an amygdala-mediated emotion memory that includes the original painful feelings of rejection. We are especially vulnerable to this as children. If a person experiences, verbal or physical abuse, or even much more benign interactions that cause an especially hurtful rejection, then an emotion memory of that event will likely be recorded. Later when she experiences significant or perhaps even minor rejections, her body may react strongly, eliciting feelings of anxiety and she might assume that she is in danger--feelings and assumptions that were appropriate to a child's experience when she was first learning the emotion memory, but that are now out of proportion to what activates the feelings and imagery. She might develop various unconscious strategies to avoid rejection, maybe by becoming withdrawn; or inappropriately defensive and over-reactive to slights; or she might become depressed, labeling herself as a hopeless looser who isn't capable of having friends.

Despite the difficulties that this causes, her brain is doing exactly what evolution designed it to do: record painful incidents, unconsciously recall the memory of that pain when circumstances are somewhat similar, and react as if the original danger is again present. Because both the recall and the effects of the emotion memory operate unconsciously, the higher level reasoning parts of the brain tend to not moderate and reality-test her strong emotional reaction; a reaction that in our present day experience seems inappropriate but from the standpoint of evolution might serve to increase chances of survival. In a hunting and gathering group, a person who is withdrawn and self-critical may be miserable and not attain a place of high status but he or she will likely not represent a threat to anyone and may elicit empathy, securing a place in a hunting and gathering group. The evolutionary attitude might be summarized as, "So what if we over-react, become defensive, even get depressed, those things are safer than missing something, under-reacting and threatening our survival by getting excluded from our group".

In the next weeks I will begin a series of blogs that explain how this understanding can be useful to us, allowing us to develop practices that have been shown to be very effective in mastering such "inappropriate" responses.

Tim Stokes has been doing psychotherapy for more than 30 years. He is the clinical director of Corporate Psychological Services and author of What Freud Didn't Know. more...

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