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Neuroplasticity and Relationships

by Tal Araim

Neuroplasticity and Relationships

Tal Araim explains how neuroplasticity convinces people in incompatible relationships that they’re happy when they really aren’t.

Now and then, some clever clogs come up with what appears to be a wise and well-measured statement that sets off a chain of approving nods from most who hear it. Humans are amazing at so many things, however, taking their time to absorb, consider all possibilities, seek some evidence, and avoid jumping to quick conclusions is not one of them. If you haven’t guessed by now, yes, this statement really irritates me. I hear it used far too often as some sort of victorious retort if someone is moaning about their partner. I’d like to call it out for what it is, a generalised short-sighted observation that neither recognises nor resolves the issue.

NEUROPLASTICITY

We’ve known for quite some time about our ability to endure difficulties and survive against all odds. Humans have withstood hardships that are the stuff of legends. Indeed, many accounts can be found in our literary records describing how heroic souls experienced unbearable ill-treatments under the most severe of conditions only to survive and live to tell their tales.

For centuries and millennia, we attributed this to courage, determination, inner strength, belief, and sheer mental fortitude that mankind seems to recall when it most needs it. As true as this may be, there is another, yet far more plausible reason why we can put up with pain and suffering: the recent discovery that our brains are malleable organs.

Neuroplasticity is a relatively new addition to our understanding of how our brains work.


In a nutshell, our brains are not static; they change with time and adapt to the conditions they encounter. There are many recent studies that can help us enhance our understanding of this topic. Gina Rippon’s research shows how “brains reflect the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners.” She uses neuroplasticity to show that the Mars vs. Venus myth is not only false but an obstacle to defeating sexism. In V S Ramachandran’s wonderful book, The Tell-Tale Brain, he eloquently details how our brain’s malleability defines what it is about us that makes us human.

However, for our purposes, I think the study entitled Adjusting Behaviour to Changing Environmental Demands with Development by Frederico Lourenco and BJ Casey is the most apt. It states that “plasticity refers to changes in the brain that enable an organism to adapt its behaviour in the face of changing environmental demands” and that “experience-driven changes in neural connections underlie the ability to learn and update thoughts and behaviours throughout life.”

In other words, since we are programmed to survive, sometimes the best way to survive is to adapt to new environments and change our expectations. A prisoner on his sentence’s first day may find his meal inedible; two years later, that same meal could be anticipated with great eagerness.

RELATIONSHIPS AND NEUROPLASTICITY

What is at play here is an adjustment in our brains’ chemical secretion commands. The ‘happy chemical’ secreting glands in our brain adapt with time in order to be able to give the body the necessary amount of hits it needs to function as normally as possible. Before he knows it, that prisoner would not only see an increase in his meal enjoyment, he will become fully immersed in prison life, reacting to good and bad situations exactly as he did on the outside; the only difference is that his definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has altered.

So how does that apply to our subject matter of interest, relationships? Well, it means that what we consider to be joyous, acceptable, or unacceptable changes with time depending on frequency. Our brain physically begins to alter when we live with an incompatible partner.

We move the goalposts so that we can still get roughly the same amount of good and bad feelings.

I’d like to use a numerical analogy to explain, if you’re an arithmophobe, please bear with. Let’s say that as we grow up, we compile two behaviour lists. The first has all those behaviours that cause our brains to secrete happy chemicals, and the second has all those that cause the secretion of unhappy chemicals. Let’s further assume that by the time we meet our partner, both lists are fifty items long. If, after a while, our partner’s actions tick as few as ten out of the fifty happy chemical inducing behaviours and as many as forty of the negative ones, our brain goes on a mission.

This mission is slow, it needs a suppressant, or a pause in judgment while the brain goes to work, and there is no better delayer than that most wonderful of all human characteristics, hope. (Tangent: Was it Woody Allen who said, “I can handle despair, it’s hope that’s the problem”?)

Using time and hope as their cronies, our brains magically distract us so that they can go ahead and edit those ‘good’/‘bad’ lists. They literally either erase some.

They could also edit subtly and cleverly so that we don’t recognise the change.

Let’s say one of the happy points was, ‘My partner backs me up when I’m talking to others.’ This is something that you really enjoyed in friendships and previous relationships, and therefore, your brain decided to add it to your good list. If your brain can see that, far more often than not, your current partner doesn’t do that, and it can see that this upsets you, it will slowly change this point to something like, ‘My partner didn’t put me down while I was talking.’

When we see those two sentences in the same paragraph, we can quite clearly notice the vast difference between the two. However, put about two years between them, and the brain has more than a fighting chance of making us think the amended version is pretty much the same as the original.

You may say that it doesn’t matter, as long as we believe we’re happy, isn’t that the same as being happy? The answer is no; while we are playing ‘happy’ on the outside, we are using a finite fuel each of us has called ‘lie to yourself and pretend’ on the inside. Once this runs out, a reboot is activated, the brain reverts back to the original list which makes the couple either separate, or, if the cost is too high, settle for an unfulfilled existence. The problem is we have quite a large cache of this ‘lie to yourself and pretend’ fuel.

CHANGING BRAIN PATTERNS

Another favourite ploy that brains of those who shack up with incompatibles love to play is to start rewarding their owners for avoiding pain instead of experiencing joy; our brain morphs itself into a danger avoiding processor, not a pleasure-seeking one.

Let’s say you’re the type that likes leaving all letters unopened until Sunday morning, and then you get a kick out of opening them all in one go. Experience has taught you that, since you’re not the head of the CIA, nothing really is that time-critical that it can’t wait until Sunday. This policy has worked for you ever since you started getting letters. There was the odd exception when you were eagerly awaiting exam results, a job offer, or a lottery win. However, usually, it’s a reminder from the local authority that the Tuesday bin collection has moved from twelve-noon to 3 pm. That’s when you realise that you didn’t even know, or care, that it was on a Tuesday. You, therefore, develop a habit of leaving opening letters to Sunday mornings.

Your brain fills you with happy chemicals whenever you see the pile of unopened letters, and then doubles the dosage when you open them on a Sunday. Then you met and began to live with Julie, Steve, Mike, Sylvia, Eduardo, Sophia, Mohammed, or Fatima. This partner went berserk the first time you picked up the letters, put them on the kitchen counter, and then sat down to watch a film. Your brain that day had a choice to make, order you to leave your partner or confuse you by sending you down the following thought process:

What’s going on? What did I do? Surely this is uncalled for. Is this where I need to compromise? I like all the good things about the relationship. Let’s not rock the boat. I suppose I can just open the letters earlier. It’s not that much of an ask, is it? OMG, this is a good film. I didn’t see that plot twist coming. I feel like a pizza.

The next morning, you open the letters immediately, your partner is happy, and you tell yourself, “What a winner, I avoided friction, so smart. Sometimes I even surprise myself. Where’s the rest of that pizza? Mmm, I love cold pizza.”

This new pattern is stored for future use during moments of friction. Your brain learns to edit your lists to include things like “open letters immediately to feel good,” and before you know it, you become someone that thrives on friction avoidance rather than on seeking acceptance, a warm look, or a positive gesture for being true to yourself. A year or three of this brain metamorphoses and you become someone that gets most of your happy rewards for not doing the wrong thing rather than for doing what comes naturally.

LOSING YOURSELF

This is the very essence of indoctrination, of becoming institutionalised, of becoming part of a settled couple that fears independence because both partners have lost touch with who they once were.

When third parties observe such a couple, they may find it odd that this pair continues to dance this dance. They may internally ask, “Can’t these two see it? They either moan about the other, or they try to make light of it. It’s so dreary to watch.” They have fused into one entity addicted to seeking credit for behaving how the other wants them to. Sometimes, one partner appears to be more addicted to ‘doing the right thing according to the other.’ Or to put it another way, one partner appears to be a bit more neutered, whereas the other is more of a trouser wearer. This doesn’t need to be according to gender.

One can stereotype and say that, for example, in Saudi Arabia, the women seem to be the more neutered sex, whereas, say in England, it’s the men that may look more under the thumb. It doesn’t matter, if you even hint at this to either partner in either society, most of them will use every logical bit of justification known to man to tell you that you are wrong and that what they have is great, or at least, much better than most.

Their brains have blinded them with age-old practiced sorcery we now know is called neuroplasticity. So, I ask you, is there any point in telling such a person, “Your happiness is not your partner’s responsibility”? They will nod and agree and conclude that you are talking about someone else.

Incompatibility slowly morphs our brains until we can no longer recognise the very incompatibility that initiated the metamorphosis.

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