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Patterns: How Neurology Can Save Relationships Patterns

  • Our lives are governed by patterns, many of them hidden.

  • Many of our most destructive interactions can be avoided by understanding their patterns.

  • While the storage of patterns enables the brain to function, it can lead to disastrous interactions.

  • If you understand how the brain builds memories, you can adjust rather than be controlled by patterns.

Patterns are everywhere, from the movements of the smallest insect to the rotation of planets. You’ll find them in Bruce Springsteen’s We Are Alive and in Mozart’s Requiem. You can see patterns in how termites construct their dwellings in California, New Jersey, and Texas despite never exchanging blueprints. But what, you may ask, has this to do with the constant bickering between you and your partner? Everything!

What Are Patterns?

Patterns are simply sequences of connected events that produce predictable outcomes. For example, every morning, I make myself a latte, which requires six steps. I’ve done it so many times that my brain has organized the steps into a sequenced pattern, where the initiation of one step leads to the next until the sequence is completed, much like a falling domino in a line triggers the domino behind it until the last domino falls. If all the dominos are correctly spaced, it only takes a minor touch to set off the sequence.

Neuroscientists believe a similar progression occurs in the brain when information is stored in related groups, such as categories (for example, round objects) and patterns (for example, latte making), rather than single data points. While this economy of effort saves the brain energy when storing and retrieving information, it can also set in motion unintended consequences—the dominos continue falling until the last one drops even if you wish to stop the sequence at the midpoint.

For example, in the morning, you make a comment about your partner’s insensitivity. By the end of the day, you’re not speaking to each other, and you don’t understand how the interaction went from an innocuous comment to you sleeping on the couch. What you may be ignoring are the words and actions that occurred between the first and last domino.

If neuroscientists are correct that the brain stores information in chains and chunks, then it is possible that tripping that first domino (for example, calling your partner insensitive) brings about the inevitability of an uncomfortable night on the couch. Yes, counseling and or psychotherapy may be appropriate to uncover an interaction pattern that culminates in accusations. But that long-term solution may not help you get a good night’s sleep tonight. Eliminating triggers and disrupting the pattern will be much faster.

Eliminating Triggers

Some neuroscientists cite the ability of the brain to create and recognize patterns as one of the most essential characteristics of being human. Every pattern has a trigger, that first domino. You realize that the beginning of your bickering starts when you make a critical comment you believe is “constructive.”

The Takeaway

Patterns are everywhere, including in our brains. Once you can identify the pattern your brain stored for disruptive personal interactions, you will be in a position to avoid triggers or if the pattern has begun, interrupt the sequence.


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