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What if our brains were like old flip phones?

My friend gave her niece an old flip phone. Her niece wanted to stop feeling so addicted to her smart phone and opted to use a more basic technology.


But when she took the old flip phone to the store the rep laughed and said, "we can't activate this phone, it's too old. The network won't support it."


The pace of technological advancement is so fast that digital hardware quickly becomes antiquated and just doesn't work any longer.


As a consumer, this can be really frustrating.


But it made me wonder, what if the same thing occurred with our internal hardware?


The fact of the matter is, as humans, our internal operating system hasn't changed much in thousands of years. We are still hardwired for connection and belonging because we wouldn't survive on our own back in the days of hunters and gatherers. And we are hardwired to notice and react to threats with either fight, flight freeze or appease, in order to preserve and protect ourselves.


But modern society is nothing like the conditions our nervous systems evolved to survive. The vast majority of the time we perceive a threat, our lives aren't actually in danger. What's worse, we are routinely surrounded by messages that induce fear - from the news, in social media, in advertising, and during everyday interactions with other people.


We are like that old flip phone unable to connect to 5G, yet we aren't out of commission. We are very much alive, wasting a lot of time and energy reacting to perceived threats that aren't actually life threatening.


Unlike the flip phone, we have the capacity to upgrade our internal operating system ourselves.


We have the power to notice the intricate workings of our inner operating systems. To be aware of the cause and effect that triggers a patterned threat response. Then to consciously shift away from our knee jerk reactions so we can approach situations more rationally and empathetically.


We not only have the capacity to self-regulate, we have the ability to rewire our own brains.


Unlike old flip phones, which are sadly obsolete and at best can be recycled. Our brains aren't beholden to the old operating system or wiring. We can adapt so our inner workings better match the environment we are living within.

This starts with learning how to notice when we have an experience that triggers a threat response.


Stimuli from experiences causes the release of different hormones in our brains. When something causes the release of cortisol, our brains tend to trigger a threat response (hence why we talk about being triggered). There are four patterned threat responses - fight, flight, freeze and appease.


If we aren't self-regulating, a patterned threat response causes our executive brain (AKA prefrontal cortex) to come off line. This is also referred to as flipping your lid. Because of that, we lose the ability to think rationally, empathize with others, problem solve and be creative. Instead, our thinking becomes myopic and we fixate on "preserving and protecting" our self-interests.


The problem with this is that the things we do when triggered tend to have the opposite effect. Instead of preserving and protecting our self interest, we inadvertently create more problems for ourselves when in a patterned threat response. That's because the reaction doesn't actually fit the situation at hand but is determined by past experiences.


When I first started bringing the latest neuroscience research into my work I always asked people if they could recall a time when they flipped their lid. But barely anyone spoke up. And it wasn't because they were embarrassed. It was because they couldn't immediately connect the dots between what they were learning and past experiences unless they were in the midst of an obvious situation.


Just like how it takes time to adapt to wearing your first pair of prescription glasses, people (myself included) need time to learn how to see situations with this new lens in place.


I recall one of the first times I was able to identify that I was triggered in the moment.


I was attending a virtual training with Judith E. Glaser on Conversational Intelligence. I struggled to engage with my classmates because of some technical difficulties and my mode completely shifted. I went from feeling excited and happy to feeling angry and closed off. I had a sinking feeling in my head and my thoughts became extremely negative.


"Oh wow, I just got triggered and went into a threat response!" I acknowledged with amazement.


My ability to recognize the cause and effect enabled me to shift out of a fight response and re-engage my whole brain.


In the past, I would have stayed in my own self-righteous indignation. My anger would have grown. I might have picked a fight or stopped engaging with the course entirely. And I would have felt sorry for myself and disappointed in other people.


But because I recognized what happened in my brain, I was able to laugh about it and not take myself so seriously. Because I wasn't stuck in a patterned threat response, I was able to think more clearly and rationally.


The problem was a glitch, not a sign of my unworthiness or inability to belong. It wasn't a big to-do or a catastrophe or an unsurmountable hurdle as I thought initially.


But my feelings were hurt and because of that my brain instantly went into survival mode.


Cultivating a deeper level of self-awareness about our triggers, and patterned threat responses is the first step in upgrading our inner operating system. From there we must learn to interrupt and ultimately rewrite the pattern. That's a critical component of self-regulation - to choose a conscious response instead of following a knee jerk reaction.


While our brains might not upgrade automatically or become obsolete, we do possess the ability to modify our inner operating system so how we respond best matches the situation at hand. This is some of the most important work of our lifetime, because all the other problems we are dealing with become easier when we stay in control of how we show up so we may have constructive, co-creating conversations.


It is both a blessing and a curse that our brains aren't like old flip phones. The blessing is that our brains have neuroplasticity - they change, and rewire throughout our lives. The curse is that we can go on using the old operating system because no one can force us to change, it's hard work.


But it is a choice. It would be much easier to just buy a new brain but it would be a lot less rewarding if that was an option and frankly, would make the difference between humans and AI indecipherable.


What will you choose?

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