How often do we end up doing things we consciously want to avoid? Why do we do things we know are harmful? Did you eat that pastry? Snoozed the alarm clock when you knew you had to get up? Let anger get the better of you when you should have kept your cool? That’s what happens when your brains don’t agree with each other!
Brains? Yes, we have three of them! A rat has only two while a lizard has just one. We have evolved from primitive microorganisms with no brains to human beings with highly developed cognitive abilities of emotion, thought, and reasoning. However, this change was not instantaneous and did not happen by design. It took place over a gazillion trials and errors; through a massive cascade of permutations and combinations brought about by natural selection.
Our Three Brains
The oldest part of our brain is called the reptilian brain and works similar to the brains of other reptiles like turtles and crocodiles. This brain performs the housekeeping activities of the body and controls breathing, heartbeat and involuntary movements. This is the most essential of the brains. Even if the other two brains die, a person may continue to breathe and perform essential bodily functions as long as the reptilian brain remains intact.
What differentiates a reptile from a mammal? Besides the physiological differences, a major difference in terms of brain functioning is that reptiles do not have an emotional life. A snake slithers away after laying eggs and doesn’t care whether her offspring survives. Mammals, on the other hand, give birth to their young and, more importantly, care for and rear their offspring. Caring requires a developed sense of emotions. This is where our second brain comes into the picture. The limbic brain, as it is called, evolved in mammals to enable them to nurture their young, rear them, defend them, form colonies and close-knit groups where members interact with and depend on each other. The limbic brain is the emotional center of our brain.
The newest kid on the block, the neocortex, is the largest of our three brains. Cats and dogs have a small neocortex while chimpanzees and orangutans have a larger one. In humans, the neocortex has developed into a sophisticated piece of neurological circuitry capable of amazing functions such as language, reasoning, imagination and planning. We have the neocortex to thank for everything we do that other animals cannot!
Three Legged Dance
Ever wonder why music can move you in ways that other art forms can’t? You can get drunk on music but you can’t get drunk by seeing a painting or reading a poem. One more trait that separates mammals and reptiles is vocal communication. Mammal parents use sounds to communicate with, care for and bond with their offspring. This auditory communication is facilitated by the limbic brain. Sound and music, therefore, directly reach the limbic brain whereas words are processed by our neocortex which is why a beautifully worded passage cannot stir your emotions like a moving melody can.
Why do you feel scared when watching a horror movie? You are perfectly aware that you are safe and the ghost or the monster exists only on the screen! Yet, during that scary scene when the ghost is hiding behind the door, you feel your heart racing and your muscles tightening. You start breathing faster as adrenaline pours through your veins. Your neocortex knows it is just a movie but your reptilian brain cannot differentiate between imagination and reality (and that is why children should not watch television but let’s save that discussion for another day!). Our reptilian brain, when it senses danger, prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction to a perceived attack or a threat to survival which prepares the body for violent action.
Our survival depended on this fight-or-flight reaction when our ancestor, looking for food on the grassland, suddenly came face to face with a lion. What happens when this response gets triggered, not on a grassland, but in a meeting room when you are giving your first interview? The reptilian brain panics and anxiety floods you while your neocortex frantically tries to calm you down telling you there’s no reason to worry. We have left our hunter-gatherer days far behind. Our emotional mechanisms that served us so well then are now not only unnecessary but often detrimental to us. Because we are most conscious of our neocortex, we falsely believe that we have a rational control over our emotions. However, logic and arguments mean nothing to two out of our three brains!
Modern society prioritizes cold analytical reasoning over spontaneous emotions. It is right in doing so because the world we live in is very different from the world in which our limbic system developed. It is wrong, however, in deemphasizing the role emotions play in our lives. Emotions govern our thoughts to a far greater degree than we imagine. Our limbic brain and neocortex compete for control over our will all the time and, more often than less, the older limbic brain wins and our neocortex covers up by rationalizing and making excuses. We can overlook this battle between the brains when it comes to having an extra piece of candy or sleeping for an extra hour but being unable to manage emotions can have more serious and potentially life threatening effects. Many of our psychological problems including the usual suspects of stress, depression and anxiety are directly or indirectly caused by discord between our three brains. How can we reduce this discord and lead smoother lives if our two older brains flatly refuse to listen to us? Are we helpless in this matter?
Epicurus said, “The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation”. Realizing and acknowledging something is the first step towards improving it. And, no, we are not helpless! Controlling emotions is difficult because we do not understand them. Changing habits and behaviors, breaking addictions and overcoming fears are all challenging tasks but they are not impossible. Understanding the different roles our three brains play is the first step we must take!
We do not control what we feel but we do control how we act. However strong our emotions may be, our actions are still governed by the neocortex which is within our control. A negative emotion such as anger is sparked off in our mind by a trigger. However, even after the trigger disappears, we often continue to wallow in the anger. We ruminate and agonize over it. We replay the incident and repeat the cycle over and over again causing frustration and despair. The first spark of emotion takes place in our limbic brain and probably isn’t in our control but everything after that is. To avoid these spirals, monitor your emotions and watch them closely. As soon as you detect a strand of a negative emotion in your mind, put your consciousness into gear and avoid feeding the emotion. If you do not feed it, it will exhaust itself and disappear as quickly as it came. Remember, how you respond to an emotion is fully within your control!
Emotions cause physiological changes. These changes, in turn, add fuel to the underlying emotion causing feedback loops. For example, you may panic during an interview. The resulting emotion of fear causes your heart to beat faster. Just at that moment, however, if you force yourself to relax and take deep breaths – a physiological activity typically not associated with fear – you break the feedback loop and this may help the fear subside. Similarly, when struck by a bout of anger, forcing yourself to smile can do wonders at dissipating the anger!
From early childhood, we construct mental scripts to help us respond quickly to common situations instead of processing each situation every time it is encountered. Over time, these scripts become powerful mental habits that govern many aspects of our lives. Although difficult, it is possible to consciously modify these scripts to lead a more fulfilling and emotionally satisfying life – think of it as mental health meets lifestyle design! The first step in designing your emotional responses to external events, however, is understanding the nature of the three departments of our triune brain. A better understanding of your emotions will go a long way in helping you nurture and take care of them!