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6 Fascinating Things to Understand About the Mind (and PTSD)

by Kassandra Lamb

I started out today with the goal of writing about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then I realized I needed to start elsewhere, with a bit of an explanation of how the human mind really works. So this is Part 1 of a two (maybe three) part series on the mind and PTSD.


Sigmund Freud (public domain)

Sigmund Freud introduced the concepts of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind in the early 1900s. His theory was quite controversial in its day and for quite a few decades afterwards. But a century after its introduction, most of us accept that there is stuff going on in our brains that we’re not currently aware of consciously.

But what exactly are these things called a conscious or unconscious mind (or the term often used by lay people–the subconscious mind)?

They aren’t really things at all. These aren’t actual places in the physical brain. There is no barrier somewhere in there that separates what is conscious from what is unconscious. Indeed, information flows back and forth between the two states of awareness all the time.

Here are six pieces of information one needs to know to understand the workings of our conscious/unconscious minds. I find them fascinating and hope that you do too.

NUMBER 1: Limited Time and Space
What we think of as our conscious minds, memory experts would call our working memories. Whatever one is thinking about at any given moment is in his/her working memory.

brain scan of working memory at work

The active parts of the brain during working memory tasks. (public domain)

Unfortunately, working memory is a pretty small space. There’s only room for about five to nine “chunks” of information at any given time. And unless one is actively focused on/thinking about a particular piece of info, it will drop out of working memory in about ten seconds or so.

Makes you wonder how we humans ever accomplish anything intellectual, doesn’t it?

NUMBER 2: Attention
If we pay attention to something, we can hold it in working memory (aka our conscious awareness) much longer. And if we are not focused on something (some verbal thought, piece of information, feeling, mental image, etc.), it will fade into the background (i.e., slide back into the unconscious mind), crowded out of working memory by whatever we are paying attention to at that moment.

Most information stored in our brains is available to our conscious minds IF the right memory cue comes along to bring it to the surface. But some things can get buried pretty deep in the unconscious, either due to lack of attention for a long time or to active pushing aside by our defenses (more on this next week).

Have you ever had the experience of something triggering a very old memory and you think, Gee, I haven’t thought about that in years?

NUMBER 3: Connections
The third thing to understand is that our minds automatically make a lot of connections between various things. This is called conditioned learning.

Ivan Pavlov

Personally, I think Ivan’s a lot cuter than Sigmund. (public domain)

Anyone who’s ever taken a psychology class has heard about Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who first had the Eureka moment regarding conditioning. He was studying the rate of salivation in dogs when presented with food, but after a while, he noticed that the dogs in his lab were salivating before the food was presented. They’d start slobbering in response to the sight of the equipment used to measure their drool, or to the lab attendant’s footsteps coming to get them out of their cages.

The dogs’ brains had learned to associate these other sights and sounds with the fact that they were about to be fed. And a biological phenomenon over which the dogs had no conscious control, salivating, occurred whenever they experienced these cues.

It’s imperative to our survival and sanity that our brains make all these little connections. They make life so much easier.

A moment ago, I scratched my hand without thinking about it. I hadn’t even noticed consciously that the hand had an itch until I was scratching it. And even then I might not have noticed if I hadn’t been casting about for an example of unconscious connections.

Without these learned associations, I wouldn’t have automatically scratched that little itch. The itch would have had to build until it was so annoying that I became consciously aware of it. Then I would have to stop and think and ask myself what has helped make something stop itching in the past. Oh yes, scratching the itchy spot usually helps.

Humans would have long since died off if they had to give that much conscious thought to every little need. There would be no time nor space in their working memories to solve problems or invent things.

NUMBER 4: The Form Our Thoughts Take
Neural impulses are firing in various parts of our brains all the time, but once we develop a fair amount of active language (usually by age 4 or 5), we tend to be most aware of our verbal thoughts. In other words, we consciously think in language most of the time.

Visual images also play a role. We may consciously call up an internal vision of something that happened in the past, or of a place we’re planning to go.

This morning, I accidentally drove past the post office, where I had planned to mail some letters. No problem, I thought as I visualized the big blue mailbox in front of my grocery store. I can mail them at the store. (My next errand.)

wedding day

I can recall being hot but I can’t feel it again consciously.

Memories of other things we’ve sensed may come into our conscious awareness as well, but most likely those thoughts will be verbal. When I think about my wedding day, during one of the hottest Augusts in Maryland’s history, I remember that it was hot. But I don’t actually feel that heat again. Likewise, I can recall that I felt both scared and excited that day. But I’m thinking about those feelings, not actually re-experiencing them.

The visceral sensations associated with memories and previous feelings are not all that accessible via our conscious minds.

Which brings us to…

NUMBER 5: Where Things Are Stored
First, let me point out that information tends to be stored in the part of the brain where it was first processed (or later, where it was re-processed; more on this next time). There’s a long biological explanation for that, which I think we’ll skip. Please just take my word for this little tidbit.

There’s a lot of stuff constantly being processed and stored in various parts of our brains, but to keep this simple I’m going to focus on the functions of three parts of the brain.

For most people (all right-handed ones and some left-handed ones), language functions occur in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. (The cerebral cortex is the outer layer and the highest level of the brain, where actual rational thinking occurs, among other things.)

The cerebral cortex hard at work.

The cerebral cortex hard at work.

Visual perception (i.e., the processing of what we see) and sound modulation processing (i.e., tone of voice, etc.) occur mostly in the right hemisphere.

So if someone says, “Now don’t you look lovely tonight, my dear,” in a mildly sarcastic voice with a slight sneer on their face, your left hemisphere processes the words themselves. But your right hemisphere sends out a “snark alert” after interpreting the body language and tone.

But here’s the thing–sometimes those interpretations of visual and auditory info don’t make it into the conscious mind, because that information is being processed in the right hemisphere and we are more prone to be aware of our verbal left hemisphere’s thoughts. If at that moment when the subtly snarky comment is being processed, we’re thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I wore this outfit tonight,” that thought may crowd the interpretation of the body language and tone of voice out of conscious awareness.

But they’ve still registered in the right hemisphere. That part of our brain knows we’ve just been dissed, even if our conscious mind is oblivious. (And the memory of that event is mostly stored in the right hemisphere–the images, tone of voice, etc.)

Okay, let’s look at where emotions tend to be processed and stored. Research indicates that our positive emotions–joy, pride, anticipation–tend to be processed mostly in the left hemisphere, while the negative ones–fear, anger, disappointment, sadness–are mostly in the right hemisphere.

Do you see where this is going? You walk away from that person assuming you’ve been complimented when in reality you’re feeling hurt and belittled, and you don’t even know you’re having those feelings, because none of that ever made it into conscious awareness. So you end up being in a bad mood or maybe you pick a fight with your mate, accusing him or her of never appreciating how you look.

And you’re totally oblivious to the fact that your mood and behavior have been affected by the jerk with a smirk on his face.

revolving brain

The two hemispheres of the brain color-coded as red; the cerebellum as beige (animated image by Database Center for Life Science CC-BY-SA-2.1-Japan, Wikimedia Commons)

This brings us to one more part of the brain that is important to understanding the conscious vs. unconscious mind. The cerebellum is a section of the brain at the lower back part of your head. It is not part of the cerebral cortex, so it is completely outside of conscious awareness and pretty much beyond the reach of logical thought processes.

Research indicates that all those learned associations I mentioned earlier are stored in the cerebellum. So they operate outside of conscious awareness.

Which brings us to the part of this that relates to PTSD.

NUMBER 6: Memories, Old Associations and Feelings Can Be Triggered Without Our Conscious Awareness
Let’s go back to the jerk with a smirk for a moment. I didn’t make that example up. That really happened to me. The host of a professional gathering met me at the door with that greeting.

My conscious mind (left hemisphere) was preening at the compliment but unconsciously, my right hemisphere picked up on the implied slam that I usually looked like crap.

As the evening progressed, I found myself feeling more and more insecure and self-conscious–not a normal reaction for me. I’m pretty secure in my ability to get along with people and be well-liked. But that evening, I found myself stumbling in conversations and even becoming physically clumsy.


For some reason, looking in the mirror often helps me connect with my unconscious mind (photo by Surii, CC-BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

I finally took myself off to the ladies’ room to have a little chat with myself. Looking in the mirror, I thought, “What’s wrong with me? I haven’t felt this awkward since middle school.”

Sometimes when you ask your unconscious mind a direct question, it gives a direct answer, if you’re paying attention. I immediately flashed to a mental image of that scene at the door. Only this time I heard the tone and saw the sneer on a conscious level.

A little background info here. I was what my mother politely called a “late bloomer,” and my classmates in middle school, being the delightfully civilized creatures that they were, teased me unmercifully about my nonexistent figure and overall gawky appearance.

The host’s tone and sneer had triggered an association (via my cerebellum) to those middle school memories and the self-conscious feelings from that time in my life (stored in the right hemisphere). All this happened outside of my conscious awareness and created a totally out of character reaction, both in my emotions and behavior.

Knowing the man as I did, I suspected he’d done it on purpose. This guy, a colleague I could barely tolerate, liked to mess with people’s heads.

I slapped on a big smile and went back into the room where the event was being held. Sailing past him, head held high, I paused briefly to thank him for hosting such a successful gathering, with a hint of sarcasm in my tone. He gave me a strange look. I hope that I successfully hid my own smirk.

Next time – how all this explains PTSD symptoms.

How about you? Has anything like that ever happened to you, where you acted out of character without understanding why? Do you find the human mind as fascinating as I do?

Please take a moment to check out my new release, Book 1 in a new series about a young woman who trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD.

ToKillALabrador FINALTo Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery

Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. Then the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, and Marcia gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.

Called in to dog-sit the Labrador service dog, Buddy, she’s outraged that his veteran owner is being presumed guilty until proven innocent. With Buddy’s help, she tries to uncover the real killer.

Even after the hunky local sheriff politely tells her to butt out, Marcia keeps poking around. Until the killer finally pokes back.


Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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This is Your Brain on Stress!

Why is it that some of us perform better under pressure while others are more likely to buckle under the load? Was it how the person was raised? Were they taught to believe in themselves? Did their parents and teachers push them to keep trying when they encountered obstacles?

We tend to assume that one’s ability to work well under stress is a function of character. But that’s not what brain research is telling us. It may be much more about differences in how our brains work–differences that are dictated by genetics.

A PET scan of a brain showing a very high level of activity (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have identified a specific gene, the COMT gene, that may dictate more than anything else whether we are the ‘push through the stress and shine’ type of person, or the one who collapses on the floor and feels like a failure when the load gets too heavy.

This may sound like bad news, but I’m not sure it is. Knowing that something is beyond our control can help us figure out a work-around. More on the real-life ramifications of this in a minute. First, let me try to boil the research down into a few paragraphs so I don’t bore you to tears.

This COMT gene controls how quickly a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is removed from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain where our most complex reasoning occurs–problem-solving, moral decisions, conflict resolution, anticipating long-term consequences, etc.

Brainstorming with the prefrontal cortex

(Okay, it’s a lame cartoon. Give me a break. it’s hard to make the brain funny!)

Dopamine is the brain chemical that helps us think clearly by inhibiting unwanted thoughts and allowing us to concentrate. But to do this, it has to be at optimal levels. Too little and we are overwhelmed and distracted by random thoughts. Too much and the thoughts we want to focus on are also inhibited, i.e., our brains are too shut down.

There are two versions of this COMT gene, one that clears dopamine away slowly and one that removes it quickly (it’s originally released by the neurons, i.e., nerve cells, in the brain). Under normal circumstances, people with the rapid-removal version are at a disadvantage; their dopamine levels are often too low. The folks with the slow-removal version often have an advantage, and do better in school for example, because overall their prefrontal cortex thinks more clearly.

However, things change when you introduce high stress levels.

The study that tied all this together was done in Taiwan where researchers determined which gene was present in 779 junior high school students who were about to take a difficult entrance exam that would determine the quality of high school education they would receive.

The students with the slow-removal gene tended to have higher grades in school than those with the fast-removal gene. But when the stress of this high-stakes test flooded their prefrontal cortex with dopamine, their brains couldn’t remove it fast enough. Now their thinking was impaired by too much dopamine.

The fast-removal students (the ones with the lower grades in school) scored an average of 8 percentage points higher than the slow-removal students on this test. Their brains could handle the stress better, get rid of the excess dopamine, and allow them to excel.

(from en.wikipedia, public domain)

So what are the real-life implications of this? If something is genetically programmed, we can’t change it, but we can learn to cope with it and work around it.

If you were one of those kids who crashed and burned on big tests and class presentations, or if you have a child who falls into this category, you should find it comforting to know that this is not a character flaw. Knowing something is not our fault can help us be more matter-of-fact about dealing with it. It is what it is.

So how do we deal with it?

1.  Stop beating up on yourself for not coping well with pressure. You’re not dumb, morally deficient or mentally ill. Your brain just works differently than those who thrive on stress.

2.  Be selective about the types of situations you expose yourself to. Forcing yourself to deal with high-stakes situations is a set-up for disaster. For example, marketing, where you have to give make-or-break presentations to clients on a regular basis, may not be the best career choice.

I suspect that both my son and I have the slow-dopamine-removal gene. We both got good grades in school but tended to score rather mediocre on high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT.

My son had his heart set on a certain college. But his SAT scores were not high enough to get a merit scholarship despite his almost 4.0 GPA. At our insistence, he took the test again, without much improvement (despite tutoring beforehand).

If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have insisted that he take the SAT a second time. I would have gone immediately to our alternate plan. We found a couple other schools that did not place as much importance on SAT scores. He got accepted into the honors program at one of them, and received a scholarship!

3.  Use stress management and relaxation techniques to help lower your stress level, and thus your dopamine production, in high-pressure situations.

More on how to do this over the next few weeks. The last two installments in this Stress Management series will be on relaxation techniques and one of the most important aspects of stress management, changing our cognitive and emotional interpretation of stressors.

So talk to me. How well do you perform under pressure?  Do you think you are a fast-dopamine-removal or slow-dopamine-removal person?

How can we help our kids adjust and learn to cope if they tend to fold under pressure?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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