Thursday, December 13, 2012

Stress and Prejudice: The Role of Memory in Triggering Intolerance

Consider the following fabricated scenario: As a child, you repeatedly experienced your mom and dad fighting over money.  The greenbacks were scarce in those days and major expenditures created stress, tension and conflict. You grow up motivated to develop your own business and, due to skill and a little bit of luck, you become successful beyond your wildest dreams. You are now wealthy and the green stuff is no longer a scarcity in your life. This should enable you to relax about money and prevent it from being a source of stress, tension and conflict with your spouse. Right? Well, not exactly. Let me tell you why.

The memory of repeated arguments about money are stored in various parts of your brain – particularly the emotional centers – that continue to get aggravated when dealing with major expenditures, even though the common sense, logical brain can say: “Hey, why worry? I’m incredibly rich!” This phenomenon of the “worried rich” is due to what’s called “unprocessed memory”. In a nutshell, your brain is very sensitive about being poor when you were a vulnerable kid. The emotional centers still compel you to believe that spending significant amounts of money is a threatening experience.
Unprocessed memories cause problems in many facets of our lives. Because these memories are connected to the fight-flight response, they tend to override the logical, thinking process of our brains. If there is a perceived threat in our environments, the emotional brain usurps our ability to use common sense. The brain automatically thinks: “This is a matter of survival. Forget logic, let’s send out the troupes”.
This research on stressful and traumatic early memories  - and how they continue to haunt us into adulthood - has been spearheaded by a brilliant Psychologist, Dr. Francine Shapiro, the originator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy procedure that treats unprocessed memories.  I will write about EMDR in future blogs. For now, it is important to use Dr. Shapiro’s work to help make the connection between memories and intolerance.
Once again, consider the fabricate scenario - your early stressful experience with mom, dad and money. This time, however, substitute greenbacks with tension and conflict over the ‘foreigners’ who moved next door to you when you were eight years old. Mom wanted to befriend them, make them feel welcome in the neighborhood, but dad objected violently to this idea. They fought over this issue repeatedly, and mom finally gave in to dad’s knee-jerk, stereotyped ideas about them, which he learned in his family of origin.
Unless you experienced a major desensitizing experience with these ‘foreigners’ during childhood - like befriending and having fun with their children - you would be prone to shy away from this group, perhaps even, like dad, find yourself with an angry aversion to them as an adult. This is one way that unprocessed memories lead to intolerance of others. These stressful events are stored in the emotional centers of your brain, and influence unconscious feelings and automatic reactions in adulthood. It helps answer the question: Why is it so tough to embrace our differences? My next blog will focus on one potential solution to the issue of intolerance. Visit, for more info on stress and memory.

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