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|It's a Jungle in There - Page 4|
To survive, animals have to be tough or fast. The tortoise and the hare are good examples of these different, equally viable, survival strategies. Our cortex distinguishes our brains from those of both hares and tortoises, but further inside, all three brains are pretty similar. Our cortex allows us far greater response flexibility than our more primitive cousins have: we can think things through, rather than respond instinctively. But thinking through options takes time, and a speedy, unthinking reflex is sometimes more adaptive, more likely to save us from danger, than the ability to consider all the options. In the interest of survival, we've retained many primitive responses and automatic subcortical processes.
For example, it takes approximately 500 to 600 milliseconds for our cerebral cortex to process an experience and register it in conscious awareness. By contrast, the amygdala, the core of our fear and attachment circuitry, located in the old-mammalian brain, can react to a potential threat in less than 100 milliseconds. This means that by the time we've become consciously aware of an experience, it's already been processed and reprocessed in the brain's more primitive regions, activating memories and triggering neural patterns generated by past learning. When we finally realize there's a need to take action of some kind, we think we're making a conscious choice, but most likely, the choice has already been made for us by our more primitive brain centers. The brain somehow creates the illusion that we're living in the present moment and are acting with free will based on conscious deliberation, but extensive evidence shows that this isn't the case. So, when we think we're directly experiencing what's going on around us, our conscious awareness is primarily the result of what's already occurred within our brains—fully 90 percent of the input to the cerebral cortex comes from internal neural processing.
The predominance of unconscious processing makes sense for situations that require rapid appraisal and reflexive action based on past learning; behaving as if we still had the brains of an ancient gazelle or lizard keeps us alive in situations requiring immediate fight or flight to avoid imminent physical danger. But for humans living in the 21st century, this arrangement isn't always socially or personally convenient, to say the least. Because this unconscious processing is both automatic and beyond our awareness, it can create distortions and ruts in our thinking—limitations that keep us frightened, withdrawn, and confused without our knowing why. Think of the veteran who ducks when he hears a car backfire, even years after combat, or runs for cover when a news helicopter flies overhead. This behavior worked well for the fearful beast scanning the ancient savannah, but it produces misery for the human trying to adapt to ordinary life in a modern, urban environment.
Attachment schemas—implicit emotional memories derived from the summation of our early experiences with caretakers, laid down in the "old" brain regions that formed before the cortex came fully online—are another example of the unconscious processing structure of our brains. These schemas become automatic predictions of outcomes that shape our conscious experience of others by activating lightning-fast systems of emotional evaluation, which lead us to seek or avoid proximity. A woman who experienced early abandonment may be perfectly capable of starting new relationships as an adult. At a certain point, however, intimacy may trigger an attachment schema that leads her to become frightened and flee from a potentially healthy relationship. The impulse to run, driven by primitive brain circuitry, is overpowering and inescapable. The true reasons for her decision to break things off, stored in her brain within implicit networks dedicated to fear regulation, remain for her aspects of what British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas accurately described as the "unthought known."