Some research suggests 80% of emotional conflict in marriages is rooted in things before the relationship even began. Why? Our brains, specifically implicit memory. Think of implicit as ‘automatic’ or basically when we run on auto-pilot. There are certain tasks that require us to focus our attention, concentrating our minds on what we are doing, seeing, hearing, learning. Others we do without ‘thinking about it’. Like breathing, walking and a large part of relating and communicating with people around us. This sub-conscious or implicit mental activity still requires a significant amount of, well, mental activity. A super-highway of neurons are firing electric pulses sending the information needed to walk, breath, and interpret the world around us. It is simply happening automatically, below our conscious awareness, without requiring us to focus and pay attention.
It wasn’t always this way. The neurological super-highways in your brain weren’t always there. When you first started to learn how to walk, for example, your brain began the gradual process of bush-whacking a neurological path allowing the flow of information, energy and chemicals needed to coordinate balancing upright on two feet. This initial trail full of exposed roots and potholes became a path, then a road and through repetitive patterns and activity a major interstate without the hindrances of downed trees, stoplights or cross-traffic.
The same process happens when as a child you learned your father furrowed his brow just before an angry outburst. In time, without even having to focus, or think about it, you would see that particular look on your father’s face and your brain would brace you for the impact of his anger. The trick is when your spouse makes the same furrowed brow expression, it is because what you are talking about isn’t clear and s/he is simply trying to understand you. But your neurons are already firing subconsciously, preparing you for an angry outburst and to respond to your spouse’s furrowed brow with whatever method you developed as a child to respond to your father’s anger.
The solution, according to Curt Thompson, in his book Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that can Transform your Life and Relationships, is to pay attention. Specifically to pay attention to what we are paying attention to. In the case of implicit memories, the key is to identify them and accurately connect them to the actual source or cause of the memory—and to thereby disconnect them from albeit similar but different situations. A classic example of this is the close, implicit, parallels we make between our experience of relationship with our parents and God. Childhood experience of our parents temperament, character, personality, expectations and treatment of us subconsciously shape the norm of what we expect and understand about God, despite what we may cognitively and intellectually say we believe about God.
As the long subtitle suggests, Dr. Thompson uses insights from neuroscience and his counseling practice to explore what he sees as the literal process God uses to ‘renew our minds’. It’s a fascinating read when thinking about patterns in our lives, our inability at times to change unwanted behaviors, why intimate relationships are so significant and what is actually involved at a physiological level when we interact with God in everyday life.