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The Familiar Path: How Our Brain's Wiring Influences Our Choices


Written by Stephanie Underwood, BSW, RSW

Published Tuesday, December 19, 2023



Introduction


Have you ever wondered why certain events repeatedly occur in your life? Maybe you notice a trend of dating similar partners, or certain patterns keep recurring, leaving you feeling trapped and unable to break free. Perhaps you find yourself clinging to the familiar, even when a part of you knows there might be better options out there?


This is not just a matter of personal preference or comfort; it's deeply rooted in our brain's wiring. Our brains, designed for survival, often lead us to choose the known over the unknown - even when the unknown path might be safer or more beneficial.


Understanding the Brain's Survival Mechanism


The brain has a singular purpose: to keep you alive. Faced with a choice between different paths, it invariably opts for the familiar over the unknown. To the brain, the unknown represents a greater danger, even if the familiar path is unhealthy. The brain prefers predictability, favoring known outcomes over uncertain ones.


Our ancestors often faced life-threatening challenges that made familiarity a key to survival. Venturing into unknown territories could mean encountering unknown predators, hostile groups, or unsafe environments. For example, choosing a known path while foraging or hunting meant navigating through familiar landscapes where the risks were more predictable and manageable. This preference for the familiar extended to social interactions as well; sticking with a known group provided safety in numbers and a shared knowledge base, crucial for dealing with threats and challenges.


The brain’s role in guiding these decisions was significant. The amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety, was constantly at work, evaluating risks and steering our ancestors towards choices that seemed safest based on past experiences. This often meant choosing the familiar over the unfamiliar. The reward system in the brain also played a role, reinforcing behaviours and choices that led to positive outcomes, such as finding food or successfully avoiding danger in familiar territories.


The Familiarity Bias in Modern Life


From childhood, we are immersed in a specific environment, be it safe or unsafe. This environment embeds itself in our brains as what "feels safe," or the "known." Even the core beliefs developed during childhood become a critical part of the brain's framework, guiding us towards the familiar by ensuring we adhere to its known script. For instance, if you learned to distrust others in your early years, forming a belief that people are untrustworthy, you might often find yourself in relationships with untrustworthy individuals, thereby reinforcing your belief that others cannot be trusted. This bias manifests in various ways. Consider someone staying in an unfulfilling job or a toxic relationship because it's familiar. Unconsciously, they might avoid pursuing a new career or relationship that, while unfamiliar, could offer greater fulfillment and happiness. This preference for the familiar, despite its downsides, stems from our brain's inherent caution against the unknown.


The Cost of Over-Reliance on the Familiar


This tendency doesn't come without a cost. Psychologically, it can lead to a sense of stagnation, missed opportunities, and even contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that individuals who challenge their fear of the unknown often experience greater satisfaction in life. Experts in psychology suggest that embracing uncertainty can be a pathway to growth and resilience.


Rewiring Our Brain to Embrace the Unknown


So, how do we rewire our brains to be more open to the unknown? Everything begins with self-awareness. We cannot change what we do not know. Look at the different spheres of your life and try to identify the patterns that may be deeply ingrained within certain areas. Look at your relationships with romantic partners, friendships, and family members.


Once you know your patterns better, start small. Gradually expose yourself to new experiences, and practice mindfulness to be aware of when your bias towards the familiar is at play. Cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt your thinking to new and changing conditions, is also crucial. This doesn't mean recklessly diving into every unknown, but rather, assessing risks realistically and being open to new possibilities.


Conclusion


Our brain's preference for the familiar path is a deeply ingrained survival mechanism. However, in a world where the unknown often offers growth and safety, it's important to understand and challenge this bias. By acknowledging and gradually pushing against our brain's natural inclinations, we can open ourselves up to new, potentially more fulfilling paths.


Now, I'd love to hear from you! Have you ever chosen the familiar path over the unknown, and how did it turn out? Are there areas in your life where you could benefit from embracing the unknown? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


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