Personal Journeys with Gramma

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Concrete Brains: Why Can’t You Understand How I Feel?

concrete brains

How can you live with someone — maybe for years — and still not “get” each other — especially when you’re dealing with feelings?  Many of us thought we simply hadn’t explained ourselves well or maybe the other person was purposely ignoring us.  Maybe not.  Research about the workings and mysteries of the human brain has surprised us with fresh ways of looking at ourselves.  We nodded slowly when we discovered that brains have gender differences hardwired in, and we read books like The Female Brain or The Male Brain from cover to cover.  But lots of pieces were still missing.  The answer is that human brains are like people — the same in lots of ways and different in lots more.  I’ve come slamming into a major difference, the implications of which aren’t easy to comprehend — the fact that some think best in terms of concrete or solid things while others fret over feelings and meanings.

One clue is that people have different ways of dealing with emotions and ideas — things that aren’t things at all such as “love” or “responsibility.”  The fact is, some people cannot put themselves in the place of someone else and imagine how that person is feeling — what we call empathy.  Their brains provide limited capacity for empathy and sometimes no capacity at all.  A woman who attended one of my workshops explained to me how she had confided in her husband (who had been diagnosed as borderline autistic) when she felt dangerously hopeless.  “I’m just so depressed; I don’t know what to do,” she told him.  He thought the solution was simple.  “Cheer up,” he answered.  His thinking, like that of Dr. Temple Grandin, was restricted to visual images — not words for abstract concepts.  Capacity for empathy lies along some kind of line or spectrum that may look more like a matrix than a line.  It isn’t a yes-or-no kind of reality.  A person doesn’t have to be diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome or any particular difficulty at all to lack the ability to understand feelings.  Most can improve their abilities with effort and insight.  Some can’t.

The tricky part is we aren’t talking about people who can’t discuss feelings or experience emotions.  They’re often intelligent and may even have impressive vocabularies, but their understanding of emotions is actually limited to the surface level.  It deals with emotions from the standpoint of actions and things.  For example, to them “love” may mean being close together, having good sex, sharing a living space, even having children.  But when the meaning involves deep feelings of empathy, selflessness, or commitment, the conversation may end with a blank stare or rolling eyes.

People who cope with the world from what I call a concrete viewpoint often seek each other out as friends or lovers because the people who keep dwelling on questions like “but what does our relationship mean to you?” frustrate them.  Oddly, they may frustrate each other with misunderstandings that complicate their relationships.  Or, they may have really solid marriages because each person has specific jobs that he or she does without question, and each person knows what to expect from the relationship from day-to-day.

The people who talk more about meaning may be naturally more abstract.  As one of those people, I can tell you we often assume those around us have the same way of seeing the world.  We’re wrong.  We say, “What a jerk!” when someone doesn’t act in accordance with the understanding we think is obvious.  But the fact may be that the “jerk” is operating from a really different viewpoint, and he or she doesn’t have a clue what our problem is.  I have a family member who’s a concrete thinker, and it took me years and attending several lectures by neuroscientists before I realized I wasn’t studying something that didn’t apply to me.  Then, once I started getting the point, I began seeing concrete thinkers all around me — frequently in official positions.

I want to explore more about contrasts in the ways brains process information and how that relates to education and the workplace.  I want to share with you what I’ve learned about ways for what I’m calling abstract people to communicate better with what I’m calling concrete people.  But for now I leave you to look — first, at yourself.  How do you think you process information?  Do you like to talk about subtleties of feelings and what feelings mean?  Or, do you get impatient when friends dwell too long on emotions and meanings?  Next, look at the people around you.  Have you survived some painful relationship problems that never made sense to you?

Some predict that we’re creating more young people who think concretely and maybe a more concrete culture, and they wonder why and how?  Could it be the influence of television, cell phones, and other instant information devices?  Could it be due to chemical pollutants?  Is it all about the impact of stress and violence in the society, or does all this concreteness contribute to stress in some way?  Is concreteness some kind of advantage in this age — one we want to cultivate?  What do you think?

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