Why Brain Research can help you improve your relationship

My work as a therapist is informed by current scientific research, especially neuroscience.

Researchers have done a wonderful job helping us understand how and why we think, feel and behave. So, I place a lot of importance on helping clients learn as much about this as possible.

The first stage of a relationship is called the “honeymoon stage.” Things are blissful and it’s hard to be apart for any length of time. The person and relationship are idealized, the sex is great and being together is most important. Couples move in together, get married, and make commitments during the honeymoon stage.

It’s only after the “honeymoon stage” where couples begin to experience problems. Couples begin to get more easily irritated, sexual intimacy diminishes, conflicts occur and reoccur with no resolution. It’s this stage where couples seek therapy knowing they need help to deal with problems.

For myself, it’s been important to find a way to simplify the complex role the brain plays in our thoughts, feelings and behavior. The most simple way I begin to explain the impact of the brain is the story of Pandora’s box.

We’ve all heard the saying, “don’t open Pandora’s box!” But what does it really mean? Myths like Pandora’s box are ancient stories which have multiple levels of meaning. The most obvious meaning is there are things we shouldn’t really talk about. Couples often decide to ignore some problems because they seem to create more distress. In this way, they follow what appears to be a message of the myth of Pandora.

In this myth, Pandora is told not to open the box, but her curiosity gets the best of her. She opens the box and all the negative aspects of the world, like illness, death, suffering, evil flies out of the box entering the common experience of human beings.In this version of  myth, the only thing  Pandora does not release from the box is “hope.” So, in the face of all this devastation, humans can hold onto hope.

Search for images of Pandora opening the box on the internet. The range and quality of the images are fascinating.

When viewing images of Pandora opening the box, we have two versions. One version shows images of death, disease, war, all the negative and evil aspects of life. In this version, it’s said Pandora closed the box in time to contain “hope” a necessary quality to deal with life’s adversity.

One has the sense Pandora becomes aware she may have done something wrong. All the forces of evil are flowing into the world of humans and will wreck havoc on their lives.

There is another version of this myth which I think is more reflective of our humanity and remarkably more consistent with contemporary neuroscience teaches us about the role of the brain in our lives.

This version of the myth suggests to us the message “don’t open Pandora’s box” is a paradox. The myth tellers understood Pandora would not be able to keep the lid of the box closed, just like humans could not avoid the misery and suffering caused by illness, disease, conflict, etc.

So, in opening the box, Pandora is simply reflecting the vulnerability of being human. We all have to face the challenges life brings us, no matter how devastating.

But there is an important facet to this more human version of the myth. Hope is not trapped in the bottom of the box, like in the first version. Hope lives at the bottom of the box and is accessed when human beings face and begin to address the challenges they face. It’s not what happens to us; it’s what we do with it that’s important.

In this version, hope is always available to us in facing challenges and the process of working through these human events will make us stronger. We can even say, spiritually stronger. Not in a religious way, but more in a way of creating meaning in our lives.

This second version is more life affirming and realistic. It’s impossible for human beings to avoid any of the distress and tragedy occurring during one’s lifetime. So, to be human is to experience life events that will cause all sorts of emotions, all of which we will have to identify, understand, express and resolve.

There is a third image related to the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box, portrayed humorously as a light in a toolbox. (Google Pandora’s box, tool box with hope light.) I think this image hits the nail on the head! (pun intended)

Here are key concepts and links to definitions you need to know to build a healthy relationship;

emotional and psychological trauma

emotional hijacking

implicit memory

priming

explicit memory

state dependent memory

context dependent memory

Stress is a part of all our lives. You have heard this before-there’s good stress and bad stress.

Good stress is when we are facing a challenge which is daunting, but doable. With some time, practice, help, we can take care of what we’re worrying about and feel good about it later.

Bad stress is the sort of thing which can be bad for our physical and mental health. There are many examples like physical, emotional and sexual abuse, exposure to violence, war, accidents, threats of bodily harm and others.

Bad stress can be overwhelming, especially when it occurs when we are young. As human beings we are not equipped to deal with bad stress. It damages ability to develop into happy, healthy adults.

If you experienced some type of abuse or neglect, it’s likely you have been dealing with the effects of that for your entire life.

Abuse and neglect can dramatically alter the physical development of our brains. Our brains develop based on the parts that are stimulated.

If our families care for us in a loving way, our brains develop in a healthy way allowing us to feel happy, peaceful and loved.

On the other hand, if we experience abuse and neglect, our brains can develop in a very defensive way, always hyper-vigilant for threats.

The -fight-flight-freeze process becomes a way of life for us. It can be repetitive cycle of ups and downs, trying to avoid problems, but always seeming to find them.

So, learning about stress and the impact on the brain and our thoughts, feelings and behavior is a great first step.

Science of Stress

Amygdala & Stress

Panic Attacks

Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems

Understanding Explicit and Implicit Memory 1

Understanding Explicit and Implicit Memory 2

Understanding Explicit and Implicit Memory 3

Learning to Ride a Bike: An Example of Implicit Memory

State Dependent Memory 1  (this video shows how subjects remember more when they are asked to remember in the place (state) in which they learned the information

State-Dependent Memory 2

Brain Structure

Cell communication

Stress

Building Brains 

Couple Arguing

Joseph LeD0ux and Implicit Memory/Amygdala

Couple Communicating

Jim Hopper

Brown University Recovered Memory Project

Ken Pope

SNAP

False Memory Syndrome Foundation

Academy for Guided Imagery

http://acadgi.com/

http://acadgi.com/researchfindings/index.html

Books I Recommend

Starting to work on your relationship? Here are some helpful book for you to consider. The highly recommended books deal with a more science based approach to relationships which I think is most helpful.

Men and women are NOT from Mars and Venus and science offers us a tremendous opportunity to understand ourselves and improve our relationships.

Click on the links for more information.

 

Highly recommended:

For better:  The science of a good marriage

A General Theory of Love

Wired for Love

Attached: The new science of adult attachment

Couples Skills

Neural Path Therapy

 

Recommended:

Self-Esteem

The Relationship Cure

The Five Languages of Love

10 Lessons to Transform your Marriage

Intimacy and Desire

Passionate Marriage

Listening Mistake: Filtering

Filtering means we let some information in and block other information out.

For example, you come home late again from work and your wife gets angry. She says, “I can not do this anymore. I have too much to do to wait for you to get home. And when you do get home, you just sit in front of the computer all night. You promise to change, but don’t.”

You are filtering if your first, automatic thought is, “What a controlling nag! Doesn’t she appreciate how hard I work to make money in this bad economy?”

The information your blocking is how much she loves you, wants you home, enjoys your company, may be overwhelmed, and desperate to find some solution to your pattern of making promises you don’t keep.