Hacking Habits Part 3: Strongest State Wins

I was 19 and naked when the screaming started. We were in the woods behind UC Santa Cruz and the only person more panicked then me was my girlfriend, lying naked beneath me. I could feel her heart pounding in my chest. Rending the silenced air another scream penetrated my Amygdala, which increased the emotional rating of the moment to DEFCON 1.

My nervous system spit its reptilian wisdom from the knobby lump atop my spinal column: Freeze.

My nervous system spit its reptilian wisdom from the knobby lump atop my spinal column: Freeze. I was standing in still frame, heart throbbing, taking in any information about our potential demise. Two mountain lions dragged the still shrieking deer past us 20-feet to the west. A third flanked us on the east. A moment later the screaming stopped. Our own death averted, we shrank from the forest and made our way down to the beach. Nearly twenty years later the event remains etched deeply in my brain – a neural canyon in a land of crevices.

The reason we remember experiences like these is because they are intense. And intensity is encoded in our brains as important. Scanning the world for patterns that are good, bad, or indifferent, the Amygdala tags all events with an emotional weight. This weighting system helps underwrite much of our survival learning. If something it has tagged as intense and dangerous arises, the Amygdala can immediately fire off an appropriate response without interference from neural hardware brought about by later evolutionary development.

This emergency pattern recognition is at the heart of one-time learning. Once established, any time something triggers a previously weighted memory, a process begins that stimulates our body and mind to reproduce an echo of the hormonal state that went with the original experience.

This emergency pattern recognition is at the heart of one-time learning.

These hormonal signals drive the emotional and mental experience of every moment. So if something reminds you of a particularly intense event, it will cue up that hormonal body state in you – influencing all in-the-moment perception and movement. This kind of learning is extremely useful when used appropriately (think ‘hot stove’). However, it becomes problematic when the tag gets associated incorrectly, as is the case with something like PTSD. Bullets whizzing by you have the habit of raising your hormonal signals of emergency. And rightfully so! But three years later when the loud sound of a slamming car door triggers that same survival response, that state of emergency may be inappropriate.

Nonetheless, this is how our systems work. And if you don’t know how to drive the system yourself, you’ll be driven around by the events and experiences that have literally shaped your brain and your life.

Reflecting back on our mirror example from Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the original cause of nasty self talk is often a deep emotional experience that triggers a heavy weighting by the Amygdala. A 6th grade peer making fun of your nose, or the realization or that “husky” is a clothing euphemism for fat, and you may have the beginnings of a new emotionally toxic platform for thinking about yourself.

Here’s how it goes: Your peer makes fun of you. Later that day, pit in your stomach, you look in the mirror at your 6th grade self, hear your peer’s taunts, and *BAM* you feel terrible and speak that terrible feeling right into yourself with a nasty voice. If you did it right, you’ll have associated that feeling with seeing yourself in the mirror. Now, lucky you, every time you see yourself in the mirror your Amygdala will reference that tag, key up the neural cascade that leads to the defeated emotional state and nasty self talk. And just like that you have a strong beginning for a life-long habit of feeling bad and talking poorly to yourself every time you look in the mirror!

…when it comes to the Amygdala the strongest state wins.


In this way does the well-designed system for keeping us alive become hijacked into creating a life long pattern of misery. The trick now is to understand that if you want to rewrite this pattern at it’s “root” one of the most effective ways is to retag the experience. However, to do this you need to understand that when it comes to the Amygdala, the strongest state wins. This means you’re going to need to associate a new, stronger experience with the mirror, otherwise it’ll be like pouring sand on metal – it may scratch the surface but it will never reshape the fundamental form.

We’ll explore the core operating position of Singularity in the upcoming post: Hacking Habits Part 4: Tomorrow’s Reality



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