Who do you think is to blame for the challenges you’ve faced in your love life?
The conscious You?
The unconscious You?
As you know from personal experience and from the science of love posts I’ve written, love is more complex than we ever thought it was.
Part of this complexity stems from the fact that even though we literally are not aware of the actions of the conscious mind, it’s active 24/7.
What Can We Compare The Subconscious Mind To?
Think about a television. There’s the screen which you CAN see. And there’s the behind the screen things you can’t see… But which highly influence what you do see. So it is with our conscious mind….those are the thoughts that we can access, but it’s the subconscious mind which is at work.
The Three Brain Parts That Play An Important Role in Love
In order to understand the brain, think of three circles nested in one another. This is neuroscientist Paul McLean’s concentric circle model.
The circle in the middle corresponds to the brain stem, which is located at the base of the skull. It is in charge of reproduction, self-preservation, blood circulation, breathing, sleeping and muscle contractions. Since all vertebrates ranging from reptiles to mammals can carry out these Funtime, this part of the brain is called the “reptilian brain.” The brain stem is responsible for physical action.
The second circle moving from the inside out, corresponds to the limbic system. It generates vivid emotions.
Dr. Harville Hendrix considers the brain stem and the limbic system to be the “old brain.” The purpose of the old brain is to determine your automatic reactions based on its hardwiring.
The outer layer of the three circle model is the cerebral cortex. It is divided into four sections called lobes. This part of the brain is the most developed in human beings given that it’s where most cognitive functions emerge. It allows you to feel conscious, be alert and be in contact with your surroundings, make decisions , think, observe, plan, anticipate. Respond, organize information, create ideas. It’s the logical part of the brain that processes cause and effect. Dr. Harville Hendrix refers to this site as the “new brain.” When you think of who you are, it’s this analytical, probing and questioning part of your mind that you think of as being you.
So in a nutshell, you can see that the old brain is, in large part, the unconscious part of your brain (because most of the functions of your old brain happen without you having to be aware of them). And the new brain is the conscious part of your brain.
What’s The Purpose of The Old Brain?
The constant action and purpose of your old brain, meaning your unconscious, is to ask and ensure “is it safe?”
The irony is that the old brain has a fuzzy/hazy awareness of the external world since it it receives its data from images, symbols and thoughts produced by the new brain.
The new brain does rely on direct perception of the world. For example, the new brain is clearly able to distinguish from one person to the next… It is able to determine the specific.
But the data that the old brain has gathers is dependent on the information it can hazily perceive from the new brain.
On the other hand, the old brain is able to focus on the general. Instead of being able to distinguish between different people, the old brain lumps people into groups and goes for the more general and broad approach.
The old brain for example, is interacted in knowing whether someone is in our lives to:
- be nurtured by
- have intercourse with
- run away from
- submit to
So the nature of the relationship, like “this is my husband” is not as important as the safe/ unsafe categories mentioned above.
How The New Brain and The Old Brain Work Together
Despite their differences, the new brain and the new brain interact in a sync with one another as a way of promoting your survival.
For example, let’s say that this happens to you:
1. You are at a busy street corner.
2. You notice a man walking toward you.
3. In a faction of a second, without your awareness of what’s happening in your mental chambers… your new brain sends an image to your old brain so that it can scrutinize it.
4. The old brain compares the image of other images it has stored. It comes up with three observations rather quickly:
- The old brain realizes that the human is not a stranger since the old brain has recorded previous encounters with this man.
- A millisecond later, the old brain informs you that there are no prior dangerous or life-threatening episodes associated with this image/man.
- There have been several pleasurable episodes associated with this man.
- The result is that this is someone who has been nurturing in your life. Given this conclusion, the lymbic system sends an all-clear signal to the reptilian brain and you’ll notice yourself smiling and walking toward this stranger with open arms and wanting to say hi.
5. With the new brain now in control, you say, “John! (Your high school sweetheart). How are you? It’s so great to see you!”
6. This type of reaction is something that we consider is so usual, that to your conscious mind all we think just happened is that we just ran into a prior boyfriend.
7. However, the subconscious mind continues its data-gathering in the background and as you engage with John, new thoughts, images and images are sent to the lymbic system’s part of the brain reserved for John (it’s weird to think that while in addition to there being a little (or big) place in your heart for John, that there is also a bit of your brain reserved for him as well.
8. The new data that’s gathered with that encounter will be part of the information that the old brain will scan next time you run into John.
Our encounters are like an art collection, make sure that they’re beautiful. -Haydee Montemayor
And this goes both ways, meaning, just as you would like the thoughts, images and symbols and emotions exchanged during an encounter to be positive, when someone encounters us, they would also like to receive positive thoughts, images, symbols and emotions from us. But all of this is happening at a subconscious level so it’s not always in our control, such as in this next example.
Suppose that you were the first born.
1. Your mom was going to have a baby.
2. And it so happened to be that the person whom your mother entrusted the most to leave you with while she went to the hospital to give birth was an uncle who never shared a word of affection with you. To him, you were almost nonexistent.
3. His wife says insensitive comments often and talks just to talk.
4. To top it off, their oldest son, who is your age bullied you and criticized your physical appearance for years.
5. You don’t know how long you were entrusted to this uncle. Was it days? A week? Or two? Doesn’t matter. But it DOES matter because you don’t remember your mother actually explaining to you how it was going to work. What was going to happen. Why she had sent you with this particular uncle.
6. Then delivery day comes (it’s a planned C-section), and you’re in the hospital waiting room. You’re so close to your mom that all you want to do is see her. After all, you were her only child for five years.
7. You start to cry. Your uncle rudely asks you to stop crying. Even though you were already trying to be quite discreet while crying. He asks it like it’s sinful to cry. Something to bury. His words are soooo hurtful during that moment. But this same uncle could have said nothing. Or not even given you the time of day. Any of these three situations could have you years later dreading the sight of him, his scent, his silhouette, the mention of his name, any thought associated with him, etc.
8. Perhaps he’s a great guy. Perhaps there’s a reason why he’s your mom’s favorite brother. But the fact that you were treated like that at age five makes it suuuuuper difficult for you to have any encounter with him and even say hi. Worst part is, he hasn’t done anything in decades to show that he cares about you. He went to your Sweet 16 because family was going to be there. He didn’t go to your wedding. He’s never sent a birthday card. He’s never called to say hi. Does he send holiday greetings? Nope, you must be the furthest thing from his mind.
9. All you know is that he didn’t act as a caring uncle taking care of his favorite sister’s daughter then, or making a minimal effort to stay in touch with his favorite sister’s daughter now.
So Why Does The Old Brain Matter That Much?
The point is, for the old brain there is no sense of time. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, don’t exist. Everything that once was, still is.
This explains why in relationships, you sometimes react out of proportion to the event at hand. It’s just that you’ve lumped all the bad things (or many of them) to this one event that is isolated from what’s going on right now. Why? Because it’s as if everything is happening at once. This often happens in love relationships, especially where jealousy can arise. Or the sense of abandonment. It’s not always that we fear being abandoned by our current partner or friends. It’s that we are feeling, fearing and fleeing from what we felt when a prior parent, friend or partner abandoned us. And we’ve all had those people in our life. Your old brain fixates on prior information, as archaic as it may seem because it’s simply data. And often it protects our heart. But sometimes, it also hardens it and desensitizes it.
Other times, when things don’t turn out the way that we want them to, like when you’re looking forward to spending some quality time with someone and they’re not there for whatever reason, you often find yourself beelining for the freezer in a desperate search for ice-cream, which may be the most similar food item that resembles your mother’s breastmilk that you know. You need the ultimate comfort food.
To Wrap Up
As noted in a prior Science of Love Post, we’re on a perpetual search for THE ONE with a specific set of positive and negative characteristics. We want someone who has the predominant characteristics of the people who raised us.
Our old brain, who is just in the now, and has limited access to the outside world is trying to recreate our childhood environment.
And you may wonder, like I did, why the old brain chooses to recreate the childhood environment rather than any other environment that we’ve encountered since then.
The reason why the old brain does this is not to regurgitate the same old shiz or to traumatize you even more.
The old brain insists on recreating your childhood environment because of a compelling need heal your childhood wounds.
Wow! Isn’t that something?
When I first learned about this, it made me teary-eyed.
It consoled me to think that there was a purpose for everything and hope to heal it.
So How Does Everything We Have Learned About the Science Of Love Fit Into the Way In Which The New Brain and The Old Brain Work Together?
And as if what you’ve learned today wasn’t fascinating enough, Dr. Harville Hendrix suggests that the reason why you feel in love with your current partner is not necessarily because of the three love theories we’ve discussed before. You feel in love because (brace yourself) your old brain had your partner confused with your parents and care givers.
Go figure! One thing is for them to resemble each other…but to think that the OLD brain was CONFUSED! Ouch! Kind of makes love not seem like all that, any more.
The thing is, your old brain believed it had finally found the perfect candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage that you experienced in childhood.
Romantic? Not so much. But even then, it is beautiful to think that upon falling in love, you did find yourself believing, thinking, wishing, hoping, trusting and surrendering to the fact that this person could make your perhaps least favorite moments in life seem more irrelevant with them by your side. But of course, often the deepest wounds require the deepest and most painful healings. And that where conflicts in relationships often arise… a topic will talk about later.
It’s Your Turn
Wow! This was pretty much like biology, sociology and psychology wrapped into one, wasn’t it? I know it was deep stuff and scientific stuff that we covered in this post. But hopefully it helps you understand that while we often associate the old brain to randomness, there is order in how things play out in our brain, in our relationships and in our life.
Our wounds and circumstances weren’t meant to make us suffer, they were meant to encourage us to learn the lessons that we’re meant to learn and be happy.