In my last post we discussed how the human brain unconsciously perceives people that we’re interacting with. It might amaze you to find out that the brain also unconsciously processes our environment too. This means that in every situation your brain is running two processes: one that you’re completely aware of, and the other that you’re completely unaware of. With an understanding of peer-to-peer unconscious processing in place I want to focus on the unconscious processing of our habitats. Our environments are often drastically overlooked; however they play a crucial role in our development and growth at every stage in our life.
This is a CT scan of two three-year-olds’ brains. The one on the left is “normal” and the one on the right is the brain scan of a child who was severely abused and raised in an extremely turbulent environment. For example this child was chained to a folding chair when her father didn’t feel like watching her. In a side by side comparison you can clearly see the devastating effects negative relationships have when paired with an equally disastrous environment. The brain on the right is smaller and underdeveloped. This is visible by the lack of dark grey (cortical) area in the scan. Notice that the brain on the left looks to be fuller and contains less dark grey areas in between light grey. The reason behind this is that along with negative relations and environments, emotions are involved. Think about the emotions of fear and fright. These are powerful emotions. For a child these emotions come at a high price. Emotions are linked hormone levels and when hormones levels spike and remain high they impede the proper development of a child’s brain. This is what a negative environment can do to person.
Everyone has heard of the nature/nurture debate and personally, I think it’s a load of crap to boil down human development into two camps. It’s a great injustice to our species to do so. Humans have an extremely rare and complicated interaction with the environments we create (and destroy). Our environments affect our development, however we affect our environment, and the cycle continues. This relationship is complex, however to reap the benefits of a positive environment we need not look at one variable but all of them: our intentions, our interactions and our environment.
Our brains are always actively unconsciously scanning our environments for familiarity and danger. Just like with people, our brains are highly efficient and exact with the information it gathers to help us make decisions. I was recently rereading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and he discusses an experiment that focuses on our unconscious environmental processing, specifically priming. Priming refers to an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. Because priming it believed to occur outside of conscious awareness, it is different from memory that relies on the direct retrieval of information.
More simply stated – your surrounding environment unconsciously prepares you to act, think, or feel a certain way. This has been proven in several different studies performed at numerous different universities around the world. One study was particularly telling because it focused on age. Students had to enter an office at the end of a long hall and take a test that had them make a sentence from scrambled words. All of the students were able to past the test with ease, however that wasn’t the test. What the researches were interested in was how long it took the students to walk down the hall before and after taking the exam, something that the students were unaware of. As it turns out all of the students walked much slower down the hall after the exam. Reason being is the scrambled word test was primarily based on words that were synonymous with old age. The words that dealt with old age unconsciously affected the subjects to walk or move slower like their senior counterparts. This test has been done on both ends of the spectrum old and young, patient and impatient, even with race. It just works.
Understanding the influence of our environments and habitats is so very complex and this single post does not do the conversation justice. As I update more posts I hope to uncover different aspects of how our environments can unconsciously shape our behaviors and the role they play in our growth, development, and actions. Just be conscious of your unconscious processes.