Bent Meyer on Non-Verbal Memory and Bodily Reactivity
Bent Meyer is an affiliate therapist at Northwest Family Life.
We spoke to him about non-verbal memory, the reactiveness that comes from that place, and how someone might integrate their non-verbal system with their cognitive one.
Talk to us about the non-verbal cues generated in our brains.
Non-verbal cues are evoked by data that come though our input senses (eyes, ears, touch, smell, etc.). It only takes 30 milliseconds for the data to find a pattern match within structures like the limbic system and hypothalamus. The pattern matching comes from previous life experience that was taken in through our senses and recorded in the non-verbal memory system to be accessed later in life.
Once a pattern match is found messaging is sent to various parts of our body to activate glands, muscles, capillaries and such to prepare for action related to what is being perceived. It takes an additional 300 to 500 milliseconds for words to be formed within our rational mind.
What kind of reactiveness comes out of non-verbal memory?
The consequence is we are already in action mode before rational consideration (executive function) can be made to evaluate whether our perception is valid or not.The limbic system is intrinsically designed and sensitive to keeping one alive and out of unpleasantness. Thus, it is biased to be particularly attuned to the negative.This provides some clarity to why defensiveness is most people’s default response when feeling shame and powerlessness.
If non-verbal memory is activating our body 10 times before we can think about it, how can people make a bridge between reacting and evaluating a situation first?
It starts with open curiosity, a felt posture of leaning into and observing without categorizing something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The task is not to obliterate our defenses but to regulate them so that they are not super aroused in situations that are benign. When we can bring awareness to the sensations in the body, asking questions about what stimulated this reaction, we can look at the patterns of thinking and behavior that are evoked. The next part is to tolerate the feelings without acting. It is holding long enough to do a reality check, slowing down to let executive function come on line.
Why is it important to be able to put words to what one is experiencing?
The benefit of integrating words with non-verbal cues is the ability to get out what is locked up inside the body without having to act it out. It is a way to not be alone. Words provide a means for others to join in our joy, pain and confusion. Words also integrate abstraction with subjective knowing and slow down reactiveness.
Can you explain a transactional way of relating in relationships?
In our culture we have been taught the values of cause and effect evaluation. It is a default in our communication with others. “I feel this way because you did _______!” I call this transactional. It externalizes the reason I feel what I feel. Each of us is responsible for how we each read and manage our internal cue and arousal. When awareness and responsibility are active, blame shifting is greatly reduced. When two people read well the full bandwidth of verbal and non-verbal communication, both from the other and from ones own interpretive cues, there can be openness to collaborate.
Can you elaborate on thinking in categories of mutuality, rather than of power differentials?
Power differential is useful in hierarchical structures, like business or military organizations, were specific purpose and time sensitive goals must be executed. But, in intimate relationships it is rarely useful.
When it exists in intimate relationships, the one with power is often on an intellectual island, relying only on their own wit. The partner is subject in a role that often is functional, but often not prized as a source of importance. For such a partner, silence is often safest. In order for the subject to have influence, manipulation, or their own power bid, must be employed. It this context, the dynamic becomes one of winning or losing. The relationship is transactional. Inter mutual dependence is unknown within these couples.
And in a scenario of mutuality?
Close intimate relationships that employ mutuality have a fluidity about them. There is an admiration and respect for the mind and abilities of the other. There is simultaneously a real knowing of one’s own current ability to contribute. I say current, because there is also an assurance that my capacity to know and be is likely improved tomorrow. It is an interdependence that collaboratively wrestles, debates, researches, and brings forward disparate resources to formulate what each could or would not do alone.
Can you speak to the process of integrating our cognitive system with our non-verbal one and thus gaining more executive / cognitive control?
The process of integrating our subjective known world and our verbal system is through awareness first, then using descriptive language. At first this might be as simple as a child who says say “Owee” and points to their ear. Obviously, later in life our descriptive language grows to where we can use metaphors to describe inner experience, for example, “I feel like I can’t breathe” to describe terror felt in social settings.
When language is not integrated with non-verbal knowing we are trapped within our skin. The only choice we have to get it out of us is to action it out. Language conventions provide the way for our inner experience, world and thoughts to be joined by others instead of trapped inside us.
Integration is the function of connecting wiring between disparate parts of the brain with enough redundancy to make the communication fuller and speedier. It is to deepen and widen knowing.
You say for most people, in the same way that “different” is often uncomfortable, so is changing our non-verbal experience system. Can you talk about pushing through this discomfort?
If you have played golf, you will likely remember the first time someone showed you how to correctly grip the handle of a club. It like felt odd, and you might have retreated to a hold that felt more comfortable to you. But the joy felt in the increasing performance from your swing made the transition to a new hold possible.
Change involves the POSIBILITY of something different. It is being curious. There is a playful leaning into possibility. What is under that rock on the beach?
I wonder what will happen if I _______? It is a given, that you will not know unless you try, and in the trying, failure is tolerably measure, yet a little on the risky side.
Change occurs with repetition and with increased complexity. This means deepening tolerance while widening variability of experience. This means the tendencies to demand fixed sequences, recipes, and time allocations must be loosened. One must teach the experience system that there are more experiences that are not dangerous, heavy, exhausting, and unpleasant, but rather surprisingly enjoyable.
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