written by: Kosjenka Muk
Our brains live in the past
Many people become grumpier and grumpier as they age. Perhaps you notice that you are more judgmental and critical than you used to be? Perhaps you feel that people were nicer and more polite when you were younger, that the sun shone brighter and grass was greener?
Every day, every moment, our brains scan our environments and (subconsciously) keep comparing them with all of our memories. This is an important survival mechanism that enables us to react to external triggers as quickly and efficiently as possible. Without such an ability, we would be as small children all of the time. However, besides benefits there are also disadvantages, just as with many other aspects of life. As a result of such continuous memory scanning, most of our emotions reflect our histories more than current experiences.
What happens if you are in a relationship, or if you are spending time with your children, and most of your emotions are reactions to your past, not your present? You can see the consequences everywhere: in broken marriages, parents alienated from children, meaningless conflicts, crimes, even wars.
Focusing on threats
One of the aspects of this survival mechanism is an instinctive habit of searching for danger signals in our environments – anything that could threaten our physical bodies, emotions, beliefs or social status – while mostly ignoring non-threatening information. Similarly, as our brains scan our memories, they are more likely to focus on the unpleasant and frightening ones, rather than pleasant or neutral events.
The older you are, the more memories you have – and many of them are unpleasant. In everyday situations, small triggers can make you react not just to one or two of such memories, but to their accumulated force. Most married couples or long-term life partners sooner or later start reacting not just to current behavior of the other person, not even only to all the frustrating memories, but also to expectations of future unpleasant behavior.
It’s good to mention at this point that our brains also tend to seek for potential dangers in our projections of future, not only in our present and past experiences. Predicting problems, recognizing potential future threats, preparing for them and finding ways of dealing with them – all of these abilities were vitally important in the dangerous environment in which the human species evolved.
Perhaps you remember your childhood with nostalgia. Perhaps you remember it as happier than it actually was, or believe that people were nicer, kinder and more honest at that time. In reality, as a child or a young person, you simply had much fewer unpleasant memories trailing behind you, so you were less able to recognize unhealthy behavior of people around you and its consequences. As we gain experience, our understanding of complex causes and consequences of human behavior becomes better and better, and we can more and more easily recognize potential threats and react to them. With time, this can also lead to stronger and stronger habits of criticism and prejudice.
A sensible approach
With such aspects of our nature, many people want to feel different than others and prove themselves as better and more advanced. They can try to suppress such instincts and convince themselves that they have “raised above” them. Such an attitude actually makes people more likely to fall into the trap of hypocrisy.
The fact is, you cannot so easily change your biological heritage and neurological structure. Human brain developed in this way because of survival needs. This won’t be changed by wishful thinking. If you convince yourself that you are above prejudice, you are more likely to find convoluted excuses for judgmental and prejudiced attitude, instead of recognizing it as it is.
The same works with prejudice against groups of people, such as different races, different sexual preferences, different religions and the opposite gender. Sorting people into categories is another of our brains’ strategies which purpose is to simplify our experience, predict possible threats and support group cohesion. This cannot be changed by a logical decision, and pretending we are above such urges will only make them worse.
The honest approach is to recognize and be aware when your brain comes with prejudiced thoughts. Then you can remind yourself to think differently and see other perspectives. With practice, this can become your knee-jerk reaction to your own prejudice.