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30 October 2022

The dominant impression - triggers of emotion

Love, hate or laughter? These are some of the inevitable responses in the human condition. Sometimes you meet someone, and through no fault of their own – you have a visceral response that says “like”, “dislike”, “not sure about this one”. It then takes one small action or possibly a set of coincidences to establish a pattern that can define the rest of your life. Why does this happen, and how can we use this to understand our emotional triggers?

It seems that the tiny triggers that we experience, create small neural pathways, that with enough plying create a super highway and network that can only lead to only on an inevitable response. It is as if the emotional game is rigged and there are only so many stops.

Whenever you see a movie by that one actor, you always have a similar response – and even if they do something completely different, it only adds a dimension.

But what happens when you meet a new actor that you have not seen before? It is tempting that to think that we give every one of the actors in our minds a clean slate. Oh – I just met this new person – and because of that, I will create a new pathway for them.

We generally do not even remember the names of new people that we meet, because our primitive mind system finds the closest relationship that we have had and plugs in the dominant impression of the memory into the placeholder of the new person, and for the rest of time, the difference engine our mind, tries to compare this person to that person.

Yes, this actor is like… but I must say in that movie they surprised me…

This gives us a clue, surprises and major events trigger and change our triggers of people and events. You may have chosen your wife because she was short, and someone that you knew early in life was short and you liked her. When the triggers start diverging you start to realise that there are other pathways here. Your mind races to connect people to new archetypes of patterns and you start picking up on other aspects of their personality. This often happens after getting to know someone after a while – in the beginning, you think they are a certain way, and then some other elements overshadow that dominant impression and creates a new set of triggers.

It takes many times and many impressions before the mind find it useful to create a new impression.

Has it ever happened that someone you met started scaring you? Or someone that you were afraid of becoming a great friend. These impressions seem to activate different personas or archetypes in the way we handle people and radically influences the way that you interact with the person.

It is this set of responses that drive group behaviours and leads to what we call racism, family feuds and other fights. It seems that the more we know about a group of people, the more likely we are to use this knowledge as a base to judge others. So it seems that we often judge whole nations, on someone that we met, or had a single interaction with – or on the word of someone in our family (and our impression of that person).

It would be nice if the whole triggering and dominant impression system was a one-way street. It also seems that people are shaped by the impressions of others. If someone is called a monster all the time, they develop a monster personality to fit what is expected and at the same time, retreat to their inner non-monster, which may be very kind to justify to themselves the balance of what they are. In psychological terms, when these two extremes are jolted or become too far apart, then it is a serious psychosis. In more normal daily setup we are shaped by the expectations of others and the perceived perception of others seems to have a massive impact on how we form our neural pathways. So we do become what others think of us. Many times, we are the very perpetuators of what others think of us, by carrying a particular nickname, by repeating the impact of a particular event or experience or by a specific time in our life, or letting ourselves be defined in a particular way. How many times when you meet someone do they tell you about their life after the accident? Sometimes you find out that the accident was 20 years ago, but somehow this is when all of their impressions started re-forming.

The “structural stuckness” is often very hard to get rid off. However, it seems that we are often the very people that make it hard. We are formed by major events, and if you want to start redefining your life, you have to start looking at how these aspects do form you and how you can start reshaping your experiences of these events. Our friends mirror back what we tell them, and so the emotions get re-enforced and become the highway. People often justify this type of stuckness in repetition by saying “and look, I turned out fine.” This is often a red flag, as they are often not fine.

How and why is this useful? It is useful because we often do not know what triggers emotions. You may be kind and gentle one minute, and in the next find yourself in a place which you do not understand how you got there. A set of impressions triggered you as you are playing through your mental impressions of a lifetime of interactions with people.

A small gesture and an environmental factor such as a noise or a series of little events may have activated the little signposts that put you on a highway of emotions that just has one inevitable end. This behavioural mechanism probably emerged from our Paleo times, when if it kissed back, it should lead to babies and if it bites, well then it was a contest to determine who is supper. Emotions were a train of triggers that told us if we should fight, flight or pro-create.

So, to understand any emotion is not just a matter of the base emotion. What makes you feel a sense of justice, what makes you rise with awe at a beautiful performance? These powerful base emotions that we fuel through art, contest, raw life, loss and inevitability – all are major cities connected by big highways. We do know when we are happy, pensive or when enlightenment strikes.

But these are still towns, less visited but clearly recognisable when we are there.

It is in the alleys and side roads, where there are places that we may have visited once or twice that we sometimes get lost. It is the complex set of emotions that remind you of the time when you were in a contest and there was a particular smell in the air, and someone shouted – that triggers that journey again when you happen to hear a similar shout or such a smell and may force you into thinking your current situation is a contest – when it is not.

We are ignorant of our own programming as emotions are triggers that get fired to put our minds into a particular state so that we pre-judge our current reality.

In this sense, the emotion robs us of the experience, as it prejudges the experience and forces the end point. It is hard to turn off the highway when you start and you may through small deviations just be adding fuel to a situation, rather than adding the perspective that will allow you to change the course of what is happening.

How can you then change the way that you react as it seems that the older we get, the more we feed the same wolf? And once we start down a path, it seems that there is only one inevitable end? If we are scared all the time, we become more scared over time. If we are happy, we seem to get happier when we are older. But what if it is not real, not useful or not constructive anymore?

It seems that we then need to look carefully at the triggers, and like we would teach a dog to accept food, then to anticipate food, based on different instructions and subsequent actions – so too must we retrain ourselves to respond differently to triggers and to be mindful of the shadows of your past, that can change the colour of our present and future. Sometimes we as humans have to be smarter than dogs and unlearn the dog trick and respond very differently to the same set of triggers.

Just because it is the dominant impression, does it have to be the only impression. In that sense, we must become young and non-judgemental again – so that we can reprogram the way we look at the world around us and overcome our ever-strengthening neural bonds that tell us the way the world works, which may not be the way it works at all.

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