This past Friday night I spoke to a group about the human experience. I was so struck by the need participants felt for getting away from their experience.

Unhappiness, upset, bad moments and genuine dislike for oneself can be an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. It is built into our nervous system to move away from that which makes pain. People who can’t feel physical pain end up with all kinds of physical damage. If you can’t feel the heat, you wouldn’t know you were burning.

But the mistake we have made in the mental health community is to treat thought as if it were “real.” Mental health care providers often speak to their patients as if the feelings, thoughts, memories or other human experiences are the same as being burned by a stove or being hit by a car.

While there is a physical component to our emotions – like energy impulses between neurons in the brain, or a cascade of other communicators such as hormones – you don’t have to know the details of this to notice that these cascades of events work in much the same way, no matter the subject matter. Imagining an event can cause the same cascade as actually living through it. Feeling excited comes from a cascade of chemicals and so does feeling sad. All of these patterns work in the same way; energy turns into form and we experience it.

Where we go from here is important. Traditional psychotherapy made every effort to get to the root of the upset, seeking problems from the past that could be the cause. There is a kind of logic to this if you think that memory is stored like a filing cabinet.

The dilemma with this approach is that neuroscience is finally giving us a look into the brain. It turns out memory does not work like a filling cabinet at all. You can’t go in and “get it” whole and intact. In fact, memory responds to your feelings in the moment. So if you are relaxed and enjoying yourself and you recall an incident from your life, your brain will pull together the memory differently than if you are angry and asked to remember the same memory. There is a simple reason for this, emotion impacts which part of the brain we have access too.

So where does all this new knowledge lead? It depends a lot on what you already think is true about being human. What you think determines how you feel about this information.

For me, I feel relieved. I get to live in my moment-to-moment experience and enjoy it. And when something happens that I don’t like, I get to watch the cascade of human emotions, knowing the chemicals are designed to work that way no matter what the subject matter is. As the feelings pass, because (note to self here) that’s what feelings do, I see more clearly, feel calmer, and see life simply.

What is the difference between you and me? I don’t think I am “in there.” I know my human experience is limited to this physical form. My spiritual feeling or access to wisdom is much larger than the highlighted regions of my brain or the cascading chemicals active at the moment.

Join us every Monday at 9 am pacific on Waking Up: The Neuroscience of Awareness, to explore the human experience and how understanding can release you from the box of your personal thinking. Or check out past shows here: Or read more blogs here:

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