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Why We Get Defensive in Neuroscientific Terms

Our brains are just trying to keep us safe.

Key points

  • What feels like the present to us is primarily the brain’s predictions of what might happen a few seconds into the future.
  • Our minds are mediating reality, using data retained from the past that we have little control over or memory of to do so.
  • The brain operates from memories and wants to avoid danger; we may occasionally respond quickly, defensively, even thoughtlessly.
Photo by Mart Production via Pexels
Source: Photo by Mart Production via Pexels

We are still in the early days of understanding how our brains work.

Neuroscience adds to our bank of knowledge at a steady clip, but there is so much we don’t understand–and that contradicts our common-sense guesswork on how the brain might work–that we do well to recognize that we are only beginners in this long journey to understanding ourselves and our minds.

For example, common sense tells us that we hear sounds in stereo, thanks to our ears. But actually, what happens (and this is a quick summary layperson’s version) is that plucking a string on a musical instrument begins a sound wave that the brain turns into electro-chemical impulses at our synapses in order to create an image of the sound that our brains can manage to analyze in a way that sounds like music to our ears. So, we don’t actually hear sounds at all. What we "hear" is an echo, a construction, in our minds.

It’s an example of how powerful our brains are, on the one hand, and how they mediate between us and the outside world, on the other hand. Almost everything we think of as direct experience is a construct in the brain.

The brain is an extraordinarily powerful instrument primarily preoccupied with keeping us alive. To do so, it creates shortcuts, images, and constructs that it compares with incoming data, to say, for example, “That looks like the shadow of a tiger! Take evasive action now!”

What feels like the present to us is mostly the brain’s predictions, a few seconds into the future, of what might be about to happen to us. Our brains live in the future, using past experiences, especially painful ones, to keep us as safe as possible.

The other way that the brain works contrary to common sense is that it remembers vast amounts of stuff that comes in through the five senses and a few more senses that we are not particularly conscious of, like proprioception. But we’re unaware of this vast trove of data because it’s stored in our unconscious minds, and we have no way to access it deliberately and consciously.

I saw an extraordinary example of this memory work recently in a study that found that a group of adopted children who had been exposed to one language at birth, and were then brought up speaking another language, still demonstrated the same brain patterns as native speakers of their original language–even though they had no memory of ever having spoken that language.

The tonal sounds of Chinese take place in a specific area of the brain that is not activated speaking certain other languages–but was in these adopted children when exposed to Chinese 10 to 17 years later. The unconscious mind retained this early memory of the language even though the teens could not speak Chinese and had no memory of ever having heard or spoken it.

Our minds are mediating reality, using vast reservoirs of data retained from the past that we have little control over or memory of to do so.

The evidence seems to suggest that our feelings of "instinct" and "gut" and "hunch" are a combination of these two activities–the memory of something bubbling up, being compared to a pattern in the brain, and the brain saying, "watch out!" or "do that!"

When that happens, you should probably trust your brain, but know that if it is wrong, it will err on the side of caution because its main job is to keep you alive to fight another day.

Finally, we should remember that our efforts to communicate with one another are largely driven by these twin processes, which means that we will tend to respond quickly, defensively, and even thoughtlessly.

We should all cut each other some slack when it comes to interactions because it’s our brains trying to avoid danger that is in charge. We only have a very limited capacity to be mindful, at the moment, fully present, and there for our fellow human beings as current thinking tells us we should be.