We have talked many a time here about how grief can make you feel a bit like you’re losing it. Emotions overwhelm you, thoughts and feelings are running amok, it can feel like your brain was highjacked. Some days you feel like your brain is somehow disconnected from yourself, you are feeling, thinking, and doing things totally differently than before the loss.
On other days, your brain can be your saving grace. You call upon your rationality, your creativity, and your emotions to cope in the depths of grief. You use your thoughts and beliefs to find a strength and courage you never knew you had. Then sometimes your brain just is. You don’t notice it helping or hurting, it is just existing, pushing you slowly through the world.
The brain is a wondrous, complex, and occasionally tricky thing. Each and every day, many times a day, the brain does things to help you out. Some are incredibly helpful, adaptive and successful. Some, not so much. Regardless of whether it is helping or hindering, the reality is that many people don’t spend time getting to know their brains. They just let them do the work. They let the observations, thoughts, and feelings happen and trust that their brain is telling them the truth. Until there is a reason, most people don’t spend much time thinking about thinking. Why would they?
I really hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are a lot of good reasons to think about thinking. Most importantly, your brain doesn’t always tell you the truth. Sometimes your brains lies, even about things that seem like very concrete observations. Sometimes it doesn’t flat out lie, but it distorts, misrepresents, overlooks, or manipulates. Often these lies, distortions, and other inaccuracies are happening very quickly and on a subconscious level, so you don’t even realize it is happening . Eeek.
Why is this so important? Well of course, you want your thoughts to be accurate. But perhaps more importantly, your thoughts impact your feelings, your decisions, and your behaviors. Though you often can’t stop certain thoughts from arising, you can develop a greater awareness about these thoughts, about the validity of these thoughts, and about how these thoughts will impact the things you feel and do. To get there, the first step is thinking about thoughts.
I wanted to write one post on this topic, but I realized once I started that the list of ways our brains lie, trick, and confuse us is far too long to squeeze in one post. So instead we are going to kick off a short series on this topic because it is just that important. Sound boring? It won’t be, I promise! And in case you’re still not sold, I am going to kick us off today with a quick example.
Filling in the Blanks
You will probably not be surprised to know that you brain fills in missing blanks all the time. When a toddler who only knows a few words is talking to you, your brain fills in the blanks and you understand what they are saying. When you only see a small portion of an object your brain can often fill in what that object is. There is research that proves it and most of the time this is a very helpful function of the brain. Until it isn’t, that is. The thing about filling in missing information is that the brain fills that space with whatever it expects will be there. It uses past familiar information to fill in gaps and make predictions. This can be understood very simply with a visual example. Take a look at the image below and tell me what shape you see:
If you saw a triangle your brain did what most of our brains do. It created a triangle where there is really nothing more than three pacmen. It did this based on your past experience with triangles. You think you’re looking at a triangle and in reality you’re looking at a vacant space. Your brain saw some cues and created a triangle where there was none.
A similar but slightly different example takes the form of two sentences you may have seen floating around the internet (or some variation of them):
It deson’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aepapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a pobelrm.
S1M1L4RLY, Y0UR M1ND 15 R34D1NG 7H15 4U70M471C4LLY W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.
Even thought the information presented to you was lacking, your brain was able to put it together without much thought. You didn’t need to unscramble to words or replace numbers with letters to fill in the blanks, your brain just figured it out for you using past experience with words.
How it impacts your grief: This filling in the blanks happens in thinking pretty regularly. When there is incomplete information or information that doesn’t make sense presented to you, your brain seeks to fill that space in and make sense of it using existing information. According to neuroscientist Marta Kutas, our brain uses context and cues to anticipate what comes next, based on your previous experience with those contexts and cues. In many situations this can be helpful, but not always.
Enter grief, stage left. Imagine someone has lost a loved one unexpectedly – maybe it was an accident, a stroke, a heart attack, or any other loss they didn’t anticipate. They are meeting their brother for dinner and he is five minutes late and he is never late. They call his cell and he doesn’t answer. There is now a huge blank space on the other side of the table that needs to be filled with information: where is my brother? If you have experienced this type of blank-filling after a death, you probably see where I am going.
Your brain examines the context then makes a split-second leap to fill in the gap. Though there are a hundred things that could fill in that blank, your brain fills it in with: something terrible has happened. What is puzzling here is that (most likely) you have encountered a variation of this situation a hundred times and most times the explanation was probably traffic, a work delay, or any number of other more probable reasons. You would expect one of those possibilities to fill the space, but it doesn’t. Why?
Well, there are a number of reasons, but the one I want to focus on here is that your brain remembers events that were emotionally significant more vividly than any other events. You can probably think of emotion-filled moments, good and bad, that you have strong memories of. There are many everyday events you probably can’t remember, no matter how desperately you try (like specific times when you or someone else was a few minutes late due to traffic). Even more relevant to grief, research shows we are more likely to experience this “focal enhancement” with negatively charged emotional experiences than with postive ones.
Go back to the example of filling in the blank of where your brother is. Even if you have experienced a great frequency of other alternative explanations, the emotional significance of your grief experience may be the most available and vivid for your brain. It therefore immediately fills in the blank. From this thought you may begin to have feelings of dread and panic, you may start sending frantic texts.
Thinking about thinking is about raising awareness of thoughts and how those thoughts impact your feelings and behaviors. There isn’t much you can do to keep your brain from immediately filling in that blank the way it does, but you can opt to reflect on that thought and increase your awareness about how you are allowing that thought to affect you. As this series continues we will be talking more about this and providing some tips for coping with your complex, sometimes tricky brain.
Have something you hope we’re going to talk about in the thinking about thinking series? Let us know in the comments! Totally relate to that filling-in-the-blanks thing? Share that too!