by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
Our brains are remarkable organs. They take in and use massive amounts of information from inside and outside our bodies and allow us to go through about 90% of our day automatically. We can get from point A to point B while checking our emails, talking to others in the subway, drinking coffee, or doing any number of tasks simultaneously. Our brains are on automation, running our lives, making decisions, and doing what needs to be done, with little thought required. Our automatic brains are cheap to run and extremely fast and efficient. That’s a very good thing when you consider how much that ability would cost if we had to use the very expensive novelty-oriented parts of our brain. If we couldn’t rely on automation, we’d never be able to accomplish much of anything.
The automatic brain is made up of old memories, some of which are explicit, but most of which are implicit, or outside our awareness. This is called procedural memory. We know it because everything we have learned—riding a bicycle, driving a car, dancing a routine—has become something our body knows.
Imagine you and I are on our first date. We are both excited by this new creature before us (assuming we are interested in each other, of course). Our aliveness is apparent, and our attention is focused intensely on each other’s face, body, smell, touch, and maybe even taste. You and I want to know everything about the other. We are fully present, and wonderful neurochemicals are coursing through our blood, brain, and body, much like cocaine. That is nature’s love potion working on us. Delicious, isn’t it? Would you like to have a bit more?
But I have good and bad news for you. First the bad first. The beautiful, fascinating, mysterious new thing that you are will be automated by my brain very soon. And your brain will automate me soon, too. When that happens, we will become familiar, and our novelty-seeking brains will no longer pay each other so much attention. Instead, we will draw from our vast reservoir of memories and experiences to do our daily business.
What is potentially bad news about this is that we think we know each other, but we don’t really. So we will make mistakes. We’ll operate from memory, which does not require presence, attention, error correction, and the other fancy things our brain does when faced with newness. For example, my brain will automatically see you as if you were my ex-wife or my mother or my father, and base its reactions on those memories.
Oh! I almost forgot: the good news. Due to the automatic brain, our relationship will seem easier, more comfortable, and more familiar. Probably the best news is that automation does not have to become a problem. This is because the antidote to automation is presence and attention to detail. By that I mean that you become habituated to attending to the details of your partner’s face, voice, body, movements, and words and phrases. When you are together, stay present in your body and don’t wander off into your own thoughts, your cell phone, and or other potential partners across the room. Keep your eyes on the ball—and that ball is your partner. Pay attention as if you’ve never seen or heard him or her before.
Paying close attention engages your brain’s novelty-loving parts. You’re telling it, “Hey, this person is unpredictable, surprising, beautifully complex, and the one on whom I am placing all my bets.” Much like a sign I once saw in Las Vegas: “You have to be here to win!”