Overcome the “Primal Learning Loop” With Curiosity

As the car I was in began to spin, hydroplaning along the gentle curve of the road, I could hear myself saying, “Oh god oh god oh NO!” I had been in just one car accident before, in the back of a taxi, but that was a quick t-bone strike at low speeds with a single 360 degree spin. This was different, a fast-moving car on a four-lane highway spinning several times before hitting a few walls and deploying airbags. After making sure I was alive and well, waiting for the police to finish with the driver and the towing company, I realized I had a unique opportunity to run an experiment: I would deny my body the “opportunity” to create a new lesson for me.

Many years before, I had been in an extraordinarily turbulent flight, which are actually not that uncommon. I was in my mid 20’s, the age when all sorts of fears begin to emerge, and I slowly began to avoid flying. In less than a year, I was avoiding airports altogether. My fear of flying lasted for over a decade. I overcame my fear of flying using Captain Tom Bunn’s “SOAR” program. Although I had been trained as a psychologist and neuroscientist, it was not until I went through the SOAR training program that I realized how much “The Body Keeps the Score,” as Bessel van der Kolk’s famous book on attachment theory and trauma teaches us.

As my adrenaline began to wane, I noticed that my mind and body began to run an ancient program, one that essentially compels us to “never let THAT happen again!” You have probably felt it as well, it’s why we have a saying like “get back on the horse!” What you may not have realized is that there is a powerful connection between your lizard brain and your mammal brain, which is the source of all of those “what if THAT had happened?” thoughts (which are accompanied by visions of death and dismemberment). The fear that you feel after a traumatic event is an archaic learning mode designed for a hostile world. I call this the “Primal Learning Loop.”

But I love cars, and I had already gone through the SOAR program, and perhaps most importantly, I help people every day overcome the unsophisticated early life lessons that are often rooted in this primal learning mode. My experiment was to remain in the present moment every time those “WHAT IF???” thoughts/images arose in my mind. As they came up, I would tell myself that I am safe right now, and I would take stock of my immediate surroundings. What do I see? Where am I? Am I safe? It worked. I replaced the fear-based curiosity of the Primal Learning Loop with a present-moment based curiosity. The “WHAT IF???” moments went away in less than an hour, and they only came up as I attempted to go to sleep over the next two nights, whereupon I performed the same exercise. They haven’t come up since.

By removing the resources that the Primal Learning Loop needed, via changing the target of my curiosity, I was able to avoid what might have become another “lesson” based in fear, designed for a world that is much more black-and-white than the one in which we live. Cars are dangerous, far more dangerous than planes. And yet it is impractical for me to take such a powerful lesson from an event that would disrupt my life so much. Basically, the rewards for continuing to travel in automobiles far outweighs the costs (to this car lover, anyway). Bringing the powerful neocortex to bear on the lizard and mammalian brains we’ve all inherited is the only way to overcome unsophisticated early life lessons, either immediately after a traumatic event, or decades after we’ve forgotten the embedded lessons that continue to shape our behavior in frustrating ways. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is essentially doing this as well (and works best with recent traumatic events, to circumvent the Primal Learning Loop). Continuous experimentation with your life will help you cross-train in the only sport that really matters to evolution – remaining curious, that you may look at everything as if for the first time.