What are helpful associations?
Young people are exposed to hundreds of new and varied experiences every day - each new experience creating a memory within the brain. These experiences can be both good and positive or bad and negative.
Our brain subconsciously collected all this data, and made associations between events - essentially “programming” itself to repeat good experiences and avoid bad ones. It does this to give us a competitive advantage in situations encountered in the future.
Most of this is extremely helpful. For instance, children at some point will have cut themselves, perhaps with a pair of scissors. For a young person, seeing their own blood for the first time can be frightening, not to mention painful.
This negative reaction creates a subconscious level of caution when using scissors, which is healthy and natural.
This, and associations like it, are essential in a child’s development, helping them to avoid potentially dangerous situations by making split-second decisions subconsciously.
Your brain is generally good at weighting memories
Some memories are neutral - neither helpful nor unhelpful. Like many people you might enjoy the smell of fresh cut grass, which can conjure up memories of days gone by - spending warm days with old friends, or perhaps summer holidays with your family. This association can put you in a different frame of mind, a good mood or maybe a sense of nostalgia for a time long-gone. The ultimate survival benefits of such neutral memories are unclear and possibly non-existent. Sometimes a memory is just a memory.
Other memories prove problematic, creating associations which can lead to irrational fears, phobias or false prejudices. These behaviours have been learned, and seem absolutely real - even though we struggle to explain them.
Many people suffer from arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. Depending on where in the World one lives, most spiders are harmless to humans, but they nevertheless induce terror in those afflicted with arachnophobia - a physical reaction of fear which includes: trembling, palpitations, shortness of breath and feelings of panic.
Where does this irrational fear of such a small animal come from? This behaviour is likely learned, at an early and impressionable age, when an adult displays this fear in view of a child - who then learns that spiders are to be feared. Human children are evolved to learn quickly from adult behaviour.
Useful learned behaviour
Think how useful this learned behaviour is to the child when observing adults displaying fear of a poisonous snake, a predatory mammal or a precipitous drop. Think then how useless this is when the lesson learned is fear of thunder, birds, or tiny household animals like spiders.
These behaviours can be unlearned with some guidance and effort. It must be stated that unlearning these lessons is a more lengthy process than learning them - for comparison think how easy some people find gaining weight, now consider how difficult they find it to lose that gained weight. A similar effort is required to undo unhealthy thinking - but it can be done. This is achieved essentially by reprogramming your brain to create new associations.
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