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Do You Know These Three Different Parts Of Your Brain?

iStock_000007825828_ExtraSmallThere are more neurons in our brains than stars in the Milky Way, and nobody fully understands how our brains really work. Still, as the statistician George E. P. Box wrote, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” So, over the next few blog posts I will provide a simplified model (taken from our Personal Mastery program) of how our brains influence our actions and various ways we can work with our neurobiology to make better choices.

In this first post, let’s take a look at three different parts of our brains and how they impact us.

To begin, at the base of our brain is the brainstem, sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain.” This is the part of our brain that controls various vital functions — things necessary to our survival that we do automatically without thinking — such as breathing, regulating our heart rate, and digesting our food. This is also the part of the brain that manages our level of alertness.

Next comes the limbic system, which contains a part of the brain called the amygdala. Part of the amygdala’s job is to assess the information coming into the brain through the five senses. There are millions of bits of information coming into our brains daily, and we can’t attend to all of them.  The amygdala is responsible for making sure we notice any information that is potentially negative or threatening in content even when we are not paying attention.

The third part of the brain is the neocortex, which is the latest player in the evolution of our human brain. This contains the prefrontal cortex (PFC), located in the front of our brain above the frontal lobes.  The PFC is the executive control center of our brain – the place where we make decisions, establish plans, decide what’s good and bad, etc.

Understanding these three parts of the brain is important because when we have an emotional reaction or get upset, one part of our brain is usually more at play than the others.

For example, Daniel Goleman, in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” coined the term “amygdala hijack.” That’s when something happens that we perceive as a threat, and the amygdala takes over and shifts control to our brainstem. In normal (non-threat) circumstances, we take in all the relevant information and then use our prefrontal cortex to make assessments, sort stuff out and decide what the best course of action is given the situation, our skills and competencies.

But in the case of a perceived threat (real or imagined, physical or emotional), the system shuts down and the automatic responses take over. It’s important to note that these responses are rigid, and that in that moment when our brainstem engages, our autonomic system responses are also engaged.

We can notice our mouth go dry, our breathing speed up, our heart rate increase — any number of symptoms that tell us our brain perceives we are in threatening territory. We call that biological signal a “pinch.”

A “pinch” is a sign that we are temporarily losing access to our prefrontal cortex and its ability to bring our best skills to bear on the situation at hand. Our brainstem is taking over and we are entering a reactive mode. It’s in that moment where we go into “fight or flight” mode. Blood gets diverted from our brains into our muscles, moving oxygen where it needs to be for a fight — in our limbs, not our higher brain function.

Have you had a “pinch” lately? What set it off? What were the consequences? We would love to hear your comments.

In my next post, I’ll expand on this idea and talk about how these threats (perceived or real) are processed by our brain and the consequences this creates.

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