Learned Behavioural Patterns
A guide to WHY therapy is sometimes needed
Imagine our ineptitude, if at every turn we were obliged to look, feel, smell or see an object or situation as if it were for the very first time that we were looking, feeling, smelling or seeing it: we would obviously tie up much mental energy, waste valuable time and, above all, incur the inevitable waste of repeating the same mistakes over and over again by selecting behaviour that, on some similar and previous occasion, had already proven to be inadequate.
Fortunately, our brain has the capacity to remember sensations, to recall situations, we are able to reason in conjunction with our memory about what we should best do and then retain a knowledge of whether our resulting reaction should be judged, in hindsight, as being satisfactory or inappropriate. This capacity to review is at once the spur and the rein of action. We can do all of this mental process in a fraction of a second as if by intuition or, in less urgent circumstances, over a period of time by a process variously known as contemplation or as worry.
Acquired memories, intricately interwoven, assert themselves as patterns of behaviour. As much as seventy to eighty percent of our waking activities are pattern driven. Such patterns of behaviour, or rehearsed responses as they might just as well be called, may be created in an instant or can be the result of protracted training.
As an animal, and thanks entirely to our enhanced brain power, our supreme survival specialisation is not to be specialised at all! It is our one great strength. We can survive in practically any and every extreme habitat on earth. The reason so many other creatures are being threatened or have already succumbed to extinction is that they are so finely and completely adapted to their environments that, when their accustomed behaviours are denied, they are simply unable to sustain their fixed patterns of existence. We are different. We have, of course, human instincts in just the same way as, say, ants have ant instincts but the difference lies in the fact that we have additional brain facilities to which ants have no recourse.
We are infinitely flexible, flagrantly unspecialized and can thus modify our behaviour to suit ever changing circumstances: perhaps not so fast as we would like to believe, but change we can and change we do.
Our brain is a wonderfully complex and capable instrument. There is ample mechanism built into it to acquire and update learned behaviour and we do in fact access this facility all the time whether it be to cope with a new supermarket layout or a change of spouse. Nothing is forgotten but, instead, is overlaid and seemingly replaced by new information and attitudes. Some internal conflict can arise, however, when a deep rooted pattern is, in spite of altered external demands, protectively retained by a brain just not willing to lightly throw it away on the flimsy evidence of new, and possibly transient, changes going on about us.
However, when we are faced with something which we know we really must come to terms with, then we are able to construct an attitude or action that seems best to cope with it. When making such a decision we have easy call upon a vast reserve of memories and learned behaviors not only from our own past but also, through tuition. from the pasts of others too. Obviously, the younger or more innocent the individual the smaller the reserve of helpful memory and the stronger therefore the influence of what little there is.
So what do they actually do for us, these learned patterns? Put simply, they precondition what we learn and what we do. They become a screen through which both incoming stimuli and outgoing response are filtered and contained. The things that we see, or indeed sense in any way at all, are not permitted to impinge directly upon our consciousness without first being screened, sorted and interpreted. In many instances, as for example in vision, the sensing nerves themselves transliterate information prior to passing on the perceived messages.
Whatever the source, all incoming information is alike promptly fielded by processes within our brain and is minutely compared with and contrasted to all of our in-house knowledge, memories, fears and expectations. Significantly, in this process of cross referencing the individual pattern pieces may be completely severed from any association with either the age or the origin of the memories being so freely yet unconsciously called into play. Again, all this before the information gets to be the subject of any conscious discrimination.
This screening provides a powerful editing function that ensures a necessary stability and continuity of behaviour. A common interest fostered by communal contact, allows much of our mental screening to be in sympathy with that of fellow group members and this, indeed, is very much what it is meant to achieve for us. We are, after all, social animals. Unfortunately, this same screening process also reinforces prejudice by removing much of the innocence from new experiences.
The filters that we create for ourselves continually and consistently delete, generalise, distort, interpret and indeed may even enhance the information that we eventually consciously process and subsequently act upon. When further converted by internal mental representation and tempered by physiological condition, our behaviour is likely to be very far removed indeed from being a naive response to stimuli but is, instead, rather more an expression of our values, beliefs, past decisions and associations.
We do, of course, get very attached to these learned patterns for in a very real sense they are us !! We can feel uncomfortable or even downright miserable when our accustomed behaviour is thwarted, questioned or changed for us. Moving house, losing a job, leaving friends behind - all these things upset us because our familiar and trusted ways of doing things are brutally confronted with change.
Do not forget that all such learned patterns are logical groupings of recognition, of process or action that have actually worked for us in a previous, given set of circumstances. They are perfectly valid reactions in a particular context. But circumstances do always change and sometimes they change in ways that are too slow, too subtle or alternatively too fast and threatening as will allow us to efficiently modify a behaviour that we have hitherto had good cause to rely upon.
When we do need to change, however, the process of reform can be a little troublesome. Since nothing is forgotten, the slate is never completely rubbed clean. Old memories can remain hidden beneath the chain of our perception either because they simply have not been sufficiently invalidated for all occasions or, more often, because they have been knit into a complex pattern that, overall, is still valid for us. For this reason it is important to recognise that our reactive behaviours are not simply educated reflex actions but are highly convoluted interactions involving massive amounts of stored and unconsciously accessed information. If a whole pattern "works" for us then the presence of a disturbing, albeit formative, piece within that whole is likely to survive and cause contradiction, confusion and hurt. Herein lies the strength of therapeutic hypnosis, by confronting these anomalies it produces results that can seem almost miraculous.
As with any kind of filter, a good clean out is a useful part of any on-going, healthy maintenance program. Our inappropriate patterns need to be exposed and put aside from the critical path of decision making. Of course, to remove all our learned patterns would leave us once again infant-like. Each of us has, however, many residual patterns that we would be better off discarding and perhaps others that are actually detrimental to our present health and happiness. Getting rid of these is called therapy.
Dan Elliott is a Hypnotherapist in Queensland, Australia. He is also the 'Pacific Rim Representative' for Hypnotic World, as such he would be pleased to answer questions, by email or telephone if necessary, from anyone within his quarter of the globe relating to Hypnotic World data and courses. His telephone number and email address may be located at www.cqhypnosis.com