Default Operating System
So it happens again. You’re in the middle of a document, email, video game, or otherwise important function and your computer crashes. When it boots back up in “safe” mode, almost every other function is disabled other than the default operating system. What if I told you our brains are no different?
What I want to focus on roughly here are two types of memory: implicit and explicit. Implicit memory is an action done enough times that it becomes subconscious; it has a subconscious affect on thoughts and behaviors. Explicit memory is a declarative, conscious memory recall specific in nature. Implicit memory is also related to semantic memory – for example, walking or tying your shoe is not something you generally think about, but you remember how to do it.
Studies in amnesiac patients have shown that amnesia primarily affects explicit memory. Implicit memory is a completely different memory system within the brain. Explicit memory relies on the hippocampus to store memories and be able to retrieve them. It’s interesting that in typical amnesia, the brain’s base functions and implicit memory still function, even without the ability to consciously recall. They are two different circuits.
Thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Those are the key to our human interactions and the core of cognitive therapy. We behave a certain way because we feel. We feel a certain way because we think. What happens when you take the conscious out of the thinking? When we do something enough times it becomes subconscious? What if that now subconscious behavior is destructive in nature? This becomes a very difficult cycle to break.
Tie Your Shoes
I want you to try something. Instead of tying your shoes left to right, tie them right to left (or under/over vs. over/under). Or switch hands. If you’re on a computer reading this, shift your mouse to the other hand. We really have to think and concentrate to do these very simple tasks. We really don’t think about these tasks normally – they are implicit memories. Now in the case of mental health and addictions – think about trying to change your implicit memories and conditioned behaviors. It’s certainly not as easy as tying your shoes differently. And if you lose your concentration, what do you think happens?
I hate the term “relapse” since it has such a negative connotation. I prefer the term “interruption.” Your core processor was interrupted, and you went back into your default operating system. An interruption in both mental health and substance use simply means a return to previous behavior. What it DOESN’T mean is that you wiped your system and have to start over. It just means you got that temporary “blue screen of death” and you need a reboot. Some reboots just take turning off your system and turning it back on. Some reboots require talking to a technician and walking through some steps. Some reboots require taking your computer into the shop and leaving it with the professionals for a while. Sound familiar? That’s because our brains are the same. Some interruptions just require a restart, some need therapy, and some need inpatient therapy. And for those of us like myself, we need a hardware tweak with psychiatric medications. Get it?
Trauma, overstimulation, extreme happiness, fear events, etc. can interrupt your concentration and lead to a system crash. These events severely disrupt your explicit concentration while attempting to change your implicit memory behaviors. When your conscious concentration is interrupted, you will default to your subconscious base operating system – your implicit memories. This is normal. This is not unexpected. There is nothing wrong with you and you are not a failure. Think about how hard it was to just switch hands on tying your shoes. Now add trying to change your baseline default emotional behavior. Give yourself some credit here. You obviously have forgotten how long it took you to learn how to tie your shoes in the first place. It’s going to take you a while to change your operating system.