October 26, 2015 Carole Levy

HBM, part 9: What does neuroscience have to say about hot buttons? A LOT!

Managing and transforming our hot buttons is a slow process and requires an old-fashioned virtue: patience. A way to alleviate the discomfort of enduring the path is to understand what neuroscience has to tell us about the subject. It has A LOT to say, since the brain is the headquarters of our hot buttons.

I should disclose that I’m not a brain expert. However I have years of experience managing my upset and that of others, as well as listening attentively to my colleague, Marc-André Olivier share cutting-edge knowledge about the brain during LAL workshops. I have also carefully studied Buddha’s brain, a book written by Rick Hanson PH.D that combines neuroscience studies and Eastern philosophy wisdom. It’s a simple, goodhearted book, and I recommend it to everybody.

Here is what I’ve learned from neuroscience so far:

The roots of most of our perceived threats are stored in our explicit and implicit memories.

Note: Remember that we live in the XXIst century in the era of Facebook, Twitter and Snapshot. Today’s experienced threats are mainly psychological. It doesn’t mean that they are not traumatic, but often they end up relating to our self-worth preoccupations.

Definitions: “Explicit memories are conscious recollections of specific events or other information. Implicit memories are residues of past experiences that largely remain below awareness but powerfully shape the inner landscape and atmosphere of our mind” (Bhudda’s Brain).


Negative events leave a residue in our memory waiting to be reactivated if we encounter a fear-provoking situation that reminds us – consciously or unconsciously- of the original one. But our brain retains only key features of the event (it already has too much data to store!). Therefore, an approximate resemblance between a current event and a past one is enough to trigger our whole alarm system: a succession of hormonal, chemical and physical reactions that can range from: a raised eyebrow, to a slight discomfort in the stomach, to heart palpitations with an impulse to punch a table with your fits. (See H.B.M., part 3).

In Conclusion: Our repetitive hot buttons are the residue –vestige – of these past threats stored in our memory, distilled by time, and refined by our maturity and resilience, but consistently and quietly reaffirmed by the hyper-vigilance of our limbic system and its negative biases.

Here is an example from my childhood:

I’m must be five years old. I am quietly playing with my box of toys outside, in front of my building, by myself. It is the 70’s, a time when this was still considered safe to do.

biker-event-1bAll of a sudden, appearing from out of nowhere, a boy on his bike rides past me, crushes my box of toys and disappears into the horizon, pedaling as fast as he can.biker-event-2His head doesn’t turn back in my direction. Not even a look.biker-event-3I burst into tears, stunned, powerless, my mouth wide open.biker-event-4In retrospect, I recognize that he may not have noticed I was there. Perhaps he noticed me, but was too embarrassed to stop. And to be completely honest, I was in the middle of the road! But my child brain didn’t care about rationality. Instead, it did its child brain job: it narrowed reality with its tunnel vision of the event, storing unpleasant sensations, negatives feelings, and distorted conclusions about what had occurred (I would confirm and reinforce these impressions in future instances): the guy ran over me as if I wasn’t there. As if I didn’t exist. He behaved like a bully, and treated me as if I was a doormat.

Forty-five years later, am I overly-sensitive to the misuse of power over me or over others? Do I easily feel dismissed, ignored, or overlooked? Yes! I have a big hot button of not being taken into consideration, of being “less than”, and obviously, of being treated like a doormat. A distilled version of this big hot button can manifest easily, as when my husband makes a decision without consulting with me.

For years, I made life choices so that being treated like a doormat would never happen. But since I spent 93% of my time fearing that I would be treated like a doormat, I ended up living in a bully-doormat paradigm where, ironically, because of my fear of being treated like a doormat, I often became the bully.

Is the reason for my sensitivity connected only to this event? I don’t think so. We are influenced by a matrix of events and circumstances. I’m sure that trans-generational imprinting plays a role too. But we have to start somewhere to open up the pressure cooker of our stuffed emotions. Explicitly naming stories from our formative years that crystallize these emotions and conclusions implicitly stored – helps release the steam. Our hot hot hot buttons start to cool down, to the point that we don’t feel the burning anymore and we can approach them. Then they become so familiar to us that we welcome them like old friends: with patience and kindness, and without taking them too seriously.

Next time, we’ll explore the common denominator for ALL the hot buttons in the world: our EGO. Stay tuned!



Please enter your name and e-mail and click the Submit button to receive your download of the Bumpy Road Workbook. This will also automatically add you to my newsletter mailing list.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.