Forming triggers

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we discuss the brain’s unconscious sensitivity to stimuli or triggers that threat its survival. We define triggers as any sensory inputs that remind an individual of a threat or suggest a threat that might cause an appropriate threat response.

As we think about unconscious processes or “the elephant,” we will repeatedly note just how sensitive the brain is to perceived threats to survival. Again, your brain’s priority is to keep you alive and accrue survival resources. 

Most of the time, then, anything that threatens that priority will be taken seriously, or will at least grab your attention. 

Let’s go back to the  previous example of the elephant and the rider.

In this example, the rider represents what we experience as that 2-5% part of the brain, the conscious brain to which one has introspective and reflective access, the part with which you can directly communicate. 

The vast majority–98%— of the brain’s unconscious activity is like the elephant.

Think of it this way: Just as elephants are scared of tiny little mice, our advanced brains are very sensitive to the smallest signs and inputs that danger might be near. 

In previous videos, we discussed the idea of negative associations–like the hot stove. Because the brain is very sensitive to potential threats to your survival and safety, situations that threaten you in some way are very strongly remembered. Negative or harmful events hold a special place in memory. 

If you did not remember the things that threatened or harmed you, you could not make the predictions that so often keep you safe and  . 

Without the ability to react quickly to perceived danger, you probably could not survive. Put simply, memories associated with risk and threat are given special attention, for quick recall and use. 

As a result, anything in the environment that suggests a threat, or reminds you of a threat, may cause a very strong reaction. Any felt input that reminds you of threat, suggests threat, or elicits a threat response can be referred to as a trigger

Like heuristics, triggers are not necessarily reflective of reality, but rather of perception. 

Let’s take the following example.

A young girl was walking down the street. An incident further down the street led to gunshots, and this girl–minding her own business–was hit by a stray bullet. It grazed her ear, but she was okay. Naturally, that incident represented a threat to survival, and the sight of blood from her encouraged this sense of fear and threat  Death had not been on her mind five minutes before. When she saw the blood, her brain rapidly started making predictions that were very overwhelming, very scary, and very unusual. 

What happened to her led to new negative associations.

The intensity and surprise of what happened led to particularly strong negative associations, so much so that the simple sound of a gunshot reminds her of all of the negative emotions and sensations that she felt in the original moment. 

Even though she survived, she still responds strongly to gunshots–to a trigger that reminds her of the initial event. In those moments, her brain and body go through the full predictive cycle, gearing her up to deal with a potential threat, even if the threat is imagined. 

Again, the reality of the situation is less important than the perception of danger. And just like a tiny mouse can cause a giant elephant to run in fear–to the surprise of those watching–events that others perceive as small or insignificant may cause overwhelming and harsh reactions based on our unique experiences and associations.