Robin Boudette, Ph.D.
From the time we’re born (and likely before), we are storing experience in memory. This memory combines with new sensory data to produce learning - but more importantly, it provides the data for models that explain our experience of the world, in real time. Often these models sum into a judgement of some kind - and those judgements stick.
The brain is a prediction machine. It is using memory to fill in neural gaps, and to build situational response models, that it instantly deploys to replace original thinking, wherever possible.
A “reaction” is an automatic retrieval of the memory, most accessible and most similar to the current situation - and its application to the present. If the last time we experienced a similar situation, we reacted with a judgement, we are most likely to react with that judgement again.
Memories and response models come directly from the primitive limbic system, through hard-wired pathways that handily beat out the intellectually refined, but slower signals from the neocortex. That means the thinking brain may send a “wait, wait, wait message - but it’s too late to even be processed.
This pattern dooms us to react the same way over and over, often with no idea that there may be a more skillful or successful response.