This morning I read an interesting post from a colleague Rita Leaman (who also writes a blog which you can read here). I would post a link to her short article, but cannot since it is on a private Yahoo group (though I have Rita’s permission to quote from it). In her post, Rita explained how her elderly mother, on hearing a piece of music, lifted her frail head and very softly, and with some difficulty said “King” repeatedly. Rita racked her brain for associations and was eventually able to make the somewhat obscure connection between the music and the word “King”. The music was the soundtrack to the show “Nicholas Nickleby” which her mother loved. Rita realised that the show had played at the Aldwych Theatre near Kingsway. She reflected this back to her mother who smiled and raised her thumb. To anyone else her mother’s apparently random comment would appear to be nonsense.
The Brain is a Pattern Matching Organ
When we truly understand the true significance of the statement that “The human brain is a pattern matching organ” we can start to make sense, not only of our own thinking – but even of thinking styles which appear to be very different – such as in dementia.
Let me illustrate the process. Have a close look at the image for the in8 Card called “Pattern Matching” and see if you can make sense of it. I’ll give some clues: Start with the activity of the main character. What is she doing? Then follow the arrows. Understanding the way the brain makes automatic associations can explain why, after discussing a jigsaw of a horse, someone with dementia might comment on a skiing holiday (see the route from the jigsaw, via the rocking horse and the rocking chair to the skier top right in the image). Their language might not make any obvious sense, but if you follow the arrows in the diagram you can quickly see the connection which would be very hard to understand without explanation of the intermediate steps. People suffering with dementia often leave out the dots which join together the steps of their thought processes.
Pattern Matching and Trauma
There are other implications to this aspect of our brains. Whenever we witness a situation which terrifies us, the brain stores sensory stimuli such as images, smells, sounds in implicit memory. These patterns tend to remain both free of context (they have not been fully integrated into a narrative) and also remain highly active and associated with the emotion of fear – since the brain automatically holds on to patterns which are associated with danger or threat. These sensory patterns have a tendency not to fade with time – but to remain as fresh as the day they were originally experienced. Now bring Patttern Matching into the picture. Any new sensory input which matches to those implicit (security – related) patterns will result in a pattern match which is often subconscious. The next thing we experience is the emotion which was originally associated with the original experience. If you were in a car crash twenty years ago and there was a certain type of air freshener in the car, getting into a car today with the same aroma can cause you to feel anxious without even knowing why. These pattern matches can happen before we are consciously aware of the stimulus and this is the mechanism at work behind all trauma – whether it is major Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or phobia responses such as fear of spiders. In fact it relates to any response which has an emotional component which appears to be an “over-reaction”. Its just the natural way our brains work – as they do their best to keep us safe.
The best news is that techniques such as the “Rewind Technique” (also known as the fast phobia technique, originally derived from the NLP Visual Kinaesthetic Dissociation Technique, but refined and improved as taught in the human givens approach) is very effective at turning these implicit memories into narrative memories with a context. This has the effect of taking away the emotional punch of the patterns – effectively de-traumatising the experience.
Pattern Matching and Meaning
When you walk into a room for the first time and sit on a chair that you have never seen before, you are performing pattern matching. You do not need to pick up the complex object made of wood and plastic or leather called “Chair” and then inspect it in detail in order to assess whether it is capable of supporting you. This is because you already have a pattern for “Chair”. If you didn’t understand the world by pattern matching, every day living would be impossible. Whenever you learn something new, you are enriching the store of patterns available in your brain.
Making Sense of Irrational Behaviour
Using insights from this way of looking at the brain we are now able to make sense of all sorts of behaviours which previously appeared baffling. Advice such as “Get a grip” or “Pull yourself together” can now be understood to be useless in situations which involve strong emotions. Since the pattern match is very rapid and automatic (it is not a conscious process), we can begin to understand why people so often say things like “I did not mean it” – even when their irrational behaviour looks, from a distance like a deliberate choice. Strong emotions lock us into a state of narrowed attention (a trance state) and deliberately take us away from being able to see the bigger picture in order to focus on the immediate.
Exciting Times Ahead
Working with these concepts enables us to take personal blame out of the picture and work instead with the reality of how people actually respond to events. It gives us fantastic new ways to approach the problems of addiction, excessive anxiety, obsessive behaviour, phobias and trauma.
Please contact us if you would like to know more about how these ideas can be used to improve the quality of peoples lives.