Smarty Pants Mom: It's Not Personal, It's Neural

There's always everyone’s favorite OJ brand in the fridge. Shirts have a way of cleaning themselves and hang wrinkle-free in the closet every week, there is prepared food for meals, and the diaper bag is filled with must-haves. There are barely any toys laying around the house, all shoes have their pairs, and there is toilet paper in every bathroom. Usually, the actions behind all this go unnoticed, no “thank you”, no recognition.

But, the day one of these is missing, you hear, “Why is this not done?”; “What happened? “ Life happens! The store was out of juice, your kid had a melt down on your way to the cleaners, you got a call that required immediate attention or had to change your afternoon plans when the bathroom suddenly flooded.

Even though you are feeling so unappreciated at the moment, I'm going to play Devil's advocate here. The truth is that our brain gets used to things easily...especially if they are good things. This is why something that might seem exciting or special can become common after a few exposures. We get used to having hot water, a tidy house, clean clothes, and clean plates. It’s a no brainer: we turn on the hot water expecting it to come out. We assume that at nighttime we can walk in the dark without stepping on toys. We open drawers without doubting we will find clean underwear and reach into the cabinet knowing plates will be ready to use for dinner.

Our body functions by the principle of energy saving. Our pre-frontal cortex handles novel events. This brain area requires a lot of energy to function and requires full consciousness. When something becomes predictable our brain assumes this as a routine and processes it through other brain regions that demand less energy and not require full consciousness. The downside to this is that it's easier to control and redirect a conscious response than an unconscious one. When you make a plan in your head assuming all predictable variables to be present and this doesn’t happen, it is our nature to be briefly confused.

Our hippocampus acts like a comparison device matching our past experiences and our current situation. When there is a discrepancy it alerts our pre-frontal cortex and amygdala. This passage from semi-conscious to fully conscious and amygdala activation causes negative mood and/or brief disorientation, anxiety, fear, sadness or anger, all usually comparable to how important those expectations were for us.

How we control this reaction, depends on our personality and emotion regulation ability. Even more, we might react differently to the same setbacks depending on our current emotional state that day. This applies to all in our household, big and small. Now, gladly, the ability to tolerate frustration is something that can be taught.

Next time somebody freaks out because what they were planning to wear hasn’t been laundered yet, you know what is going on in their head. It's not personal, it's neural.


Maite is a mom of 3, a Cognitive Neuroscience PhD, Psychologist & Education expert and owner of Neubuco LLC. She offers her knowledge of applied neuroscience to everyday life here at LH.