Sam is having a great day. Springtime: The earth smells dank and robust with thaw. The sun shines like an orange neon bulb in an endless blue sky. A bird sings from the high branches of a fully leafed oak tree. Sam feels good, positive, and confident as the soles of his new sneakers hit the pavement with purpose. He walks down a familiar local street feeling safe and happy. Suddenly an unseen stranger whacks Sam over the head with a 2 x 4. He loses consciousness. When Sam comes to, his wallet has been stolen and he has an awful headache but is otherwise unharmed.
What does Sam do when he walks down this street again? Does he feel completely comfortable? Avoid it? Carry a baseball bat to protect himself?
How the Brain Encodes Disturbing Events
Individual responses to a troubling incident depend on many factors, from a secure or insecure sense of self to the stress-reaction models you saw in childhood to previous experiences of being successfully empowered or frighteningly disempowered. When you experience anything (from inside the womb to your life in this moment), your brain transcribes the details in neural pathways—connections between different parts of your brain and nervous system. Like a computer storing bits of information, your brain codes events and stimuli in both conscious and subconscious memory, to be accessed to help you both understand your environment and keep safe.
The shock and surprise of uncomfortable experiences can cause certain events to wire neurons (special cells that send messages through the neural pathway) together in a chain that activates a fight-or-flight response in subsequent similar situations, even when a survival response isn’t necessary. For example, after the attack Sam feels so disturbed that whenever he hears a bird singing—no matter where he is—he feels uneasy. His stomach flip-flops, his mouth gets dry, and his heart rate soars. While he may know he’s perfectly safe, Sam can’t stop this chain reaction. It’s as if his brain gets hijacked.
Here’s why: A thought creates a physical reaction that you experience as a feeling in your body tied to an emotion in your mind. In a split, unconscious second, Sam hears the bird; sees a picture in his mind of himself unconscious on the ground; thinks, “I’m in danger!”; senses tension as his body activates a chemical response that releases stress hormones preparing him to defend himself; and feels fear. If this process remains uninterrupted for the remainder of Sam’s life, he will see it happen more quickly and more often and be more and more powerless to stop it.
Changing the Code
Or Sam could rewire his brain so the experience of the attack in the past no longer connects to feelings of fear in the present. One of my favorite ways to accomplish this is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a process that uses language and your brain’s natural representational systems to change thoughts, experiences, memories, and emotions.
In the 1960s, NLP’s founders—Richard Bandler, a computer programmer turned psychology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and John Grinder, a professor of linguistics at the same university—had an interest that turned into a movement. The interest began with discovering how successful psychotherapists achieved their results. Specifically, they studied three of the top therapists at the time (Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson) through the process of “modeling”: analyzing their speaking patterns, voice tones, word selection, gestures, and eye movements. The resulting patterns and details became the foundation of NLP theory, which suggests a model for understanding the workings of the mind with an emphasis on personal development and communication.
NLP theory teaches that we can alter an experience or memory by changing how its components are wired together in the mind. Applied in fields as diverse as psychology, advertising, sales, performing arts, coaching, health sciences, public speaking, team building, management training, sports, and education, NLP has become a controversial methodology. It became a scattered movement (partially due to the acrimonious parting of Bandler and Grinder in the 1980s), and many in the clinical world take it less than seriously because of a lack of empirical evidence. Those of us using it in the trenches with clients (and even ourselves), however, see incontrovertible and dramatic results. For example, NLP played a significant role in my own recovery from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is why I decided to become certified in it. I now routinely use NLP to help my clients to both alter their memory associations and reclaim control over their emotions and behavior.
Your brain catalogs the world through your five senses. While all sensory information counts, three of your senses carry more weight than the others: sight, sound, and touch. Constantly scanning your environment, your brain performs a transderivational search in every situation: It notices stimuli, then goes back into itself seeking neural pathways that contain similar data. When it finds the data, the brain makes a picture in your mind; your mind interprets the meaning of the picture; and your resulting feelings relay the message to you as an emotion. All of this happens in a split second and informs your response.
Here’s where things get interesting. You can change how your brain links sensory information and memories, thereby changing your feelings. In effect, you can rewire the coding by changing aspects of the representation. Doing so breaks the emotional weld: You remember things that happened in the past, but their emotional charge has been defused. How to do this will be the subject of my next post.