By Richard Fay
This article has been supplied and reproduced with permission from Centre for Men & Families, a 96five community contributor.
There are a bunch of ways we learn stuff. One is through repetition. 2×2=4. 3×3=9. a-b-c-d-e-f…. this is a large part of early schooling. Another is through experience, like riding a bike. We have to do it. We go from unconscious incompetence (we have no idea we can’t do something) to conscious incompetence, where we know what we don’t know. We then develop conscious competence, where we deliberately express a task, like the first time we master driving a car, but with exhausting concentration. Finally we get to unconscious competence, where we have no recollection of the technical aspects of that drive home from work.
But there’s one sure fire way to never forget something. It’s guaranteed to store it in your brain (and your body, which has its own way of remembering) for the rest of your life. It’s called trauma.
The problem with this is it teaches us to avoid. If we avoid, our life shrinks around the problem, which only grows.
For 95% of us, our brains are like velcro to life’s difficulties, and teflon to the good stuff. So we remember the hard times, and forget the good times. Scientists did an experiment with mice to prove this.
They put the mice in a maze with cheese at the end. Then they cut the whiskers off the right side of the mice and left only a few on the left side. Mice have no peripheral vision so they use their whiskers to determine where the walls of the maze are. Then they cut a hole half way along the left side of the maze. Some mice ran to the hole, sensed it, felt their way around it and kept going to the end. Others didn’t notice the hole and fell through it, into a bucket.
The mice that had noticed the hole the first time were prepared for it, and felt their way around it and kept going. The mice that hadn’t noticed it the first time got to the same place and stopped there. They’d go around in circles but they’d never get past the hole. They’d starve in that stuck place.
So if you want to learn something and never forget it, experience a trauma. But that will leave you stuck in it. Your brain wants you to survive more than anything else, and it will make your life very small in order to keep you safe.
So to grow, we have to fight against the fear. There are four steps to this process (and like almost all learning, it’s a process).
- Thank your brain for trying to keep you safe. It’s just in over-drive, that’s all. It needs to relax a bit. It will relax if you show gratitude to its over-alert defences. Gratitude is always calm, it always comes from a place of safety. Fear is simply Little Miss Helpful, who isn’t very helpful, but wants to be. She’s probably using five year old intelligence, that’s why.
- We need to remind ourselves that this experience now is not that experience then, they are different. It will feel like that. The mice standing at the edge of the hole re-experienced falling through the hole, even though they were standing at the edge of it. Put it in perspective: will that job interview result in a panel of experts laughing at your incompetence? Of course not. And we need to remember there’s cheese somewhere beyond this challenge.
- Notice your body on high alert and tense and relax various muscles. A bath, a walk, a workout, slow breaths in and out for at least two minutes, something to shift the “I’m being chased by a bear” fuel running havoc in our bloodstream. Once it’s triggered, that fuel needs to be used up to help you relax.
- We need to remember there is cheese waiting for us, beyond this fear. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul called life’s challenges “brief, momentary afflictions” which is ridiculous until you put them into an eternal perspective. He knew that no feeling is final. He knew that thriving is found in the knowledge that we don’t need to live as frightened orphans, but loving, adopted children.