Once the jolt of this dramatic treatment failure wore off, I began to focus on the question of what I’d missed in my work with Patrick and other clients that could account for the shockingly short-lived impact of our therapy. I’d always counted on the big bang of therapeutically induced emotional catharsis to create the kind of instantaneous “learning experience” that would result in a life lived differently. What I’d forgotten was that true learning doesn’t come in a sudden breakthrough: it takes most people years of trial, error, practice, reinforcement of some behaviors, and active discouragement of others to become civilized adult human beings. True, I dimly recalled some bare basics: we build internal inhibitions against certain behaviors by making mistakes (our mothers say no to chocolate milk, we scream in protest, our mothers get mad, and we feel ashamed) and by observing external constraints (your classmate sasses the teacher and gets time in detention with extra homework). But beyond these Stone Age truths, I was completely out of touch with the latest research in learning theory.
So I began holing up in libraries in those pre-Internet days, reading about how we learn and how we recall emotionally laden material. It soon became apparent that, for starters, my practice of Christmas Carol therapy didn’t account for what researchers call state-dependent and context-dependent learning and recall. Information learned in one mental state and social context is most likely to be recalled when in the same emotional state and social context, but unlikely to be recalled in other states and contexts. What we learn in a warm, accepting environment like therapy can hardly be accessible in aroused states and perceived hostile environments. To put it differently, Mr. Hyde probably won’t recall what Dr. Jekyll learned
So Patrick, when resentful at Mattie, could recall every little thing she’d said or done to offend him since their honeymoon, but wouldn’t remember any of those things when he felt sweet and loving. By the end of treatment, he could clearly see issues with Mattie without blame, resentment, or entitlement; however, it was a different story at home. Mattie’s frowning at anything at all could get him aroused and ready for aggression, with little or no conscious awareness.
I began to realize that Christmas Carol therapy, dependent on deep, emotional exploration of clients’ past hurts and their connection to current behaviors, followed by a fireworks display of catharsis, might actually be making the problem worse by creating a special context of learning that was unlikely to be recalled at home under the stress of high emotional arousal.
Continual repetition of behaviors and thoughts results in highly reinforced neural connections, which are experienced as habits. The brain loves habits because they conserve energy. Every day, the brain takes in all kinds of experiences and, based on those, makes numerous assumptions about the environment, which it uses as processing filters to make tacit judgments and behavior choices, most of which are outside of awareness. If there’s no obvious environmental exception to the string of assumptions underlying a given behavioral impulse, we act without conscious thought, emotion, or perception of the action. For example, you can walk across your living room and sit down without thinking anything about it. You don’t have to look for the chair because your brain assumes where it is. You can’t do that in a strange hotel room, which is why travel is exhausting. In unfamiliar environments, your brain must formulate new strings of assumptions for everyday behaviors.
For this reason, we tend to make more social mistakes at home—saying and doing insensitive, thoughtless things—than we do in contexts that require more conscious processing. In fact, the brain tends to tune out familiar tones of voice in its proclivity for autopilot functioning—which is why spouses, parents, and schoolteachers need to alter tonality when they want to relate an important detail. Hedonic adaptation explains how we flatten emotional salience, positive or negative, once we adapt to it: it becomes familiar by virtue of an underlying structure of habituated responses. This is how bad situations, like prison or a permanent disability, become bearable, and how good things, like pleasant marital interactions, once they become habits, become boring.
Researchers describe habits as a series of conditioned responses. By adulthood, most emotional responses and behavioral impulses are conditioned: we think, feel, and behave more or less the same in the same states and social contexts over and over. Habits and the conditioned responses that compose them are processed in the brain in milliseconds, thousands of times faster than conscious decisions. In fact, most of our decisions are made prior to conscious awareness, governed more by habit than deliberate choice.