The brain quickly jumps to false conclusions. On rare occasions, this response can be lifesaving. Most of the time it’s just another false alarm.
As the result of my long-Covid-caused lack of taste and smell, which I described in detail in the last installment, I was drawing all kinds of false conclusions based on information I WASN’T even perceiving. I’ve known I have had no sense of smell (and diminished sense of taste) for over a month now, yet I continue to make poor judgments based on information coming in from only 3 senses instead of all 5. In other words, I’m turning the LACK OF INFORMATION into information.
For example, I went out to pick some basil from my vegetable garden yesterday. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of where everything is in a vegetable garden or even remember what or where you’ve planted it. I vaguely remembered planting the basil right next to a pepper plant. Now there were two plants in the garden that looked identical. Neither one had any peppers on it so I decided to smell the leaves to see which one was the basil. Pre-covid this test would have worked perfectly. Post covid I couldn’t smell a thing, but I’m so accustomed to thinking I CAN smell when I couldn’t I concluded: I must not have planted any basil. So, I turned the lack of information into information.
It wasn’t until ten minutes later that it dawned on me: Of course I couldn’t smell the basil. I sent my wife out to do the picking.
Perception is often a shorthand assessment of what’s going on around us. For some very good reasons, we draw fast (sometimes incorrect) conclusions about what we are seeing, hearing, tasting or smelling which occasionally can be lifesaving.
If you’ve ever mistaken a stick for a snake, you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. The part of the brain where the stress response originates – the amygdala – is always scanning our environment for possible threats. It has a very quick, single neuron connection between itself and the eyes and ears. Like a smoke detector, it sounds the alarm at the first sign of trouble.
By the time the pre-frontal cortex sorts out the fact that the curvy stick in the grass is NOT a snake or the loud noise you heard is just fireworks going off and NOT a gun, you probably have ALREADY taken evasive action and may have already experienced a full-blown (albeit short-lived) stress response. In this situation, the brain assumes the worst possible scenario and immediately acts as if it were true. Psychologists call this negativity bias.
Negativity bias is good in this situation, even when it’s wrong, because it’s better to be safe than sorry. If it HAD been a gun or a snake, you would have taken evasive action without even thinking about it. Still, always jumping to negative conclusions, and having a hair-trigger response to anything even remotely threatening can be tiring and sometimes counterproductive.
How do we quickly sort out the difference between the two? Is it even possible to deactivate an over-active startle response? Can we literally rewire the brain? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. It takes time, but you can do it. Brain scientists call this rewiring trick: neuroplasticity. That’s what we will explore in the next installment.