Today, we’re going to talk about how the survival reflex adapts and learns from experience: it learns differently than the conscious part of your brain does.
Conscious memory works kind of like a librarian: it organizes things by time and topic. So, if you think of your senior year of high school, the memories that might come up would be: the part-time job you had; the goofy haircut and silly clothes; your biggest crush that year… And so on. All these memories are neatly organized, like in a filing cabinet.
Reflex learns very differently. Let’s look at an example:
Imagine a small herd of zebras, enjoying some delicious pasture.
(Yes, I’m purposely trying to pick a story that won’t trigger anyone… I’m hoping no one here ever got attacked by an angry zebra?)
Anyway – our zebra friends are enjoying their lunch, when one of them catches sight of a lion sneaking up on them.
He yells, “LION!!!“, and all the zebras take off running.
Unfortunately, there’s this one zebra… Let’s call him George. George is a chubby, clumsy little zebra. He’s got the goofy haircut, thick glasses, asthma. He always gets picked last for the zebra softball team – you get the picture. He’s not the sharpest crayon in the box, but he really loves flowers. So, the zebras are all running, when all of a sudden – George sees some flowers. Red ones – his favourite. So – George stops to take a good whiff.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The lion says George tasted just like chicken.
Here’s how reflex memory works differently than normal memory: reflex memory is not a librarian. It doesn’t care what happened the day before, the week before, or earlier that year. All your reflex cares about is:
“What was going on at the time that could have predicted this?“,
“What can I watch for next time to keep safe?”
The problem is, reflex is not smart enough to know the difference between good predictors of danger, and just random stuff that was going on at the time. So, what it thinks of as signs of trouble is usually any reminders of what happened.
If the lion snuck up behind a big rock, the zebra’s reflex will now learn that big rocks are potentially dangerous – so checking around big rocks in the future may be a lesson learned that saves the lives of other zebras.
But, the zebra’s reflex may also learn that red flowers are dangerous. Now – the conscious, rational part of the zebra’s brain will realize that a lion won’t jump out of a flower. But reflex doesn’t work that way.
So… fast forward to Valentine’s Day. Our little zebra sees bouquets of red roses in the grocery store.
(What’s a zebra doing in the grocery store, you might ask? Simple – he’s doing groceries. He doesn’t go to the pasture anymore; he learned that pasture is dangerous).
His reflex has learned that “red flowers are dangerous”, so seeing the roses pushes his “danger” button; he panics, and feels an overwhelming urge to abandon his cart in the middle of the store and run away.
That, in a nutshell, is how reflex learns. And that’s how it reacts, even when the part of your brain that’s responsible for rational thinking tells you there’s nothing to be scared of. Understanding this little nugget of information can become an important tool in managing fear, and we’ll get into more about that in the next few posts.
I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…
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~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.
*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.
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8 thoughts on “PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 2: How reflex learns”
I love the analogy you have used to tell this tale and my day is complete in that I’ve learned that Zebras likely taste like chicken. thanks Dee.
Thanks so much Ross, for the kind words! 🙂
This is a good analogy Dee.
Important for all care providers and supporting families to remember is that everyone has a different set of triggers. In a military sense, a field Medical Assistant could have different triggers than the tank driver. In a civilian sense, a passenger in a car who has ever crashed through a windshield, probably has different triggers than someone who drives fast and tail-gates.
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, John!
You are absolutely right, triggers are different and unique for everyone, depending the trauma that the person experienced, and this dictates what your survival reflex “learns” is dangerous.
We will get into discussing that a lot more in future posts – this blog is still very green, and this was actually the first post where we got into triggers at all. More to come – stay tuned! 🙂
It always pleases me to see complex issues explained simply. It chips away at the “Fog of Ignorance” so many of us have about what is happening to us at the time it happens. The more we know, the less scary the dark.
Thanks so much for stopping by, and thanks for your kind words! 🙂
The goal of this blog is precisely that – to take out the mystery of PTSD, by explaining it in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand. Not knowing what’s happening to you is terrifying; having it explained to you in geeky ten-dollar words is useless…
There is genius in simplicity. Thank you Dee for this great insight into how our human (I mean zebra) minds work.