Saturday, July 7, 2007

I can't believe I just did that!

Psychologists at Exeter University have made a neat discovery. Apparently they've tracked down a brain mechanism that alerts us, in the present, to mistakes we've made in the past. So volunteers who messed up on a set task experienced a sort of instinctive mental flinch when they were about to repeat that mess-up. Useful, say the psychologists, because it provides us with an early warning system in skills such as driving.

My thought was this. If we have such a mine detector for physical competencies, what about emotional competencies? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn not to date the partners who make us miserable, or not to run the addictive behaviours that cause us heartbreak? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn to avoid mistakes in our relationships?

Well actually, we do learn. We develop emotional mine detectors from the day we are born - and many of them stand us in very good stead. Problem is, we also overlearn. We learn, too quickly for our own good sometimes, that we need to flinch and run away from certain situations. And then, because of our past mistakes we can end up emotionally paralysed, scared of ourselves, scared of other people, scared of living our lives.

The vast majority of my agony aunt correspondents - and the vast majority of people worldwide who turn up in therapy - are folks who have a wired-in early warning system that leaves them believing that they can do nothing, be nothing, love no-one - for fear of making the same mistakes again.

Note to Exeter, then. Once you've tracked down not only our physical but also our emotional early warning system, can you please work out a way that - when we need and want to - we can also put that system on hold for a moment, relax, and start trusting the world and trusting ourselves