THE BRAIN EXPLAINED
Let’s understand how the brain works. This explanation is designed to help you have an understanding so you will find it easier to explain why we feel emotions and how things like sadness, anger and fear can happen under stress and what we can do to control them.
You have two brains- yes, you read that right- you have two brains working as one- but also working against each other. This is what your brain looks like simplified.
This is the conscious part you are using right now. The part that we know as us- the bit that makes you who you are.
This is the part of the brain Oscar is based on.
This is the most recent part of our brain to evolve and it’s the part that separates us from other mammals. It allows us to imagine, analyse, have perception,. It is like a super smart computer that will consider things rationally and logically. As a result when we are in this part of our brain, we tend to find solutions easily and we act positively and calmly.
When we evolved this part of the brain, we did not lose the old primitive brain. It’s not like we were able to just upgrade. So we have both parts of the brain and they do not always agree.
This is the part of the brain Daisy represents as a character.
However, there is another part of the brain, the primitive brain. This is the brain we had when we were cave men and women and our sole purpose in life was survival. Every day we had to hunt and gather and threats were literally life or death.
The centre of this brain is the limbic system, which responds's to threat with only one of three potential actions fight/flight/freeze.
The limbic system has 3 main parts with very fancy names.
The amygdala- which decides if it is a life or death threat.
The hippocampus- holds and refers to past behavioural experiences and patterns to decide the appropriate (or inappropriate) action.
The hypothalamus - which regulates chemical responses to make our body react- increase heart rate, breathing make us sweat etc
The limbic system is not creative, it is reactive. It learns through trial and error such as a negative outcome or positive reward..
If you were to encounter a tiger, your amygdala would send out an alert to signal danger, the hippocampus would look for previous experiences of tigers and choose the best possible safety measure- fight, flight or freeze- if it chose to run like hell, then the hypothalamus will kick out all the chemicals needed to help your body to be most effective in getting away- it will make your heart race, your breathing increase, and send adrenaline and cortisol surging around your body.
This would be great if we met a Tiger. However, in modern times, people- including our children, can get this life-threatening response to things such as going to school, starting a new job, going on a first date, socialising in groups.
All these reactions, however, are our brain's way of protecting us from harm.
Limbic the dog is based on this part of the brain
The primitive mind evolved in such a chaotic and threatening time. It is both obsessional and vigilant. It was always on alert to any possible threat- just waiting to jump in and keep you physically alive.
And, because the Limbic System is not an intellect it can’t be innovative. It has to refer to previous patterns of behaviour. If what we did yesterday ensured our survival then we are encouraged to do it again. It doesn’t care if we are happy- only if we are alive.
If our primitive mind thinks that, for one reason or another, our life is in some sort of crisis or emergency it will step in generally to help. Depression, anxiety, and anger are all primitive opt out clauses.
When the cave man looked out of the cave and there was snow or ice or danger and he couldn’t go out to hunt, he pulled the rug over his head and didn’t interact until the situation changed. We have adapted this to all the modern day symptoms of depression
In primitive times we has to hunt and kill for our food. Anger is merely a primitive way of increasing our strength to defend ourselves against wild animals and other wild tribesman etc
The primitive mind is a negative mind. It will always see things from the worst possible perspective. If you think about it, it has to for your self-preservation. When a caveman ran into a Tiger that last thing the brain needed to do was think ‘ maybe its eaten?’ no, we want to run like hell.
So why are we not all running around suffering from anxiety, depression or anger issues?
Because how we respond to a situation entirely depends on if we see it as a threat. It is about our perception of events, not the events themselves. This is why some people are scared of spiders- others are not. Because those that see them as a threat will respond accordingly.
As soon as we feel under intense threat- the smart brain shuts down and all energy goes into the Limbic system as we need to respond immediately and dramatically.
However, if we find a way to stop that reaction or change our perception of the event then we can take back control and stay in the smart brain- we can then react rationally and logically.
We tend to think negatively when we are functioning from the Limbic system which we now know is intrinsically negative. However, the smart brain can also be tricky.
As I mentioned- this is the part of the brain that separates us from other mammals. A dog may get angry at another dog in passing, but it will not spend the rest of the day angry with everyone because it’s thinking about that encounter. However, it may remember that dog and act angry next time because it has learned that last time getting angry meant it survived the encounter.
The smart or intellectual brain allows us to imagine the future and take perspective about past situations. Great, except as humans we spend a lot of time forecasting the future and introspecting the past.
So when we get angry with someone at school or work- we often go home still cross. We will go over the encounter over and over, we probably snap at people at home as a result. We will then consider when we may see that person again and forecast how bad that encounter will be after today.
Here is that incredible and frustrating thing about the brain- it cannot tell imagination form reality. Intellectually we know that the situation was blown out of proportion but because we have imagined arguing again- our brain has registered that person as a threat- so when we do meet them, rather than acting rationally we are already in the limbic system and react with anger again. You can see how this can become a cycle and being in the moment is one way to avoid it- which is where mindfulness helps.
We are hard wired to think negatively so it can take a lot of effort and practice to override it but we can. Our brain are learning and rewiring all the time.
As you can see above. If your environment is a stressful one- we can get stuck in a negative thinking cycle. However, even when the environment isn’t necessarily stressful, in fact, others are thriving in it- if we tend to overthink the past and the future, we can cause ourselves to end up in a negative thinking cycle.
Thinking negatively isn’t just a psychological trap- it's actually your brain rewiring.
You see when we have a new experience, a neural pathway is created in the brain. To simplify a huge amount of amazing science, when you learn a new skill- say playing the piano, your brain is creating pathways that help you know that when you read music, that note is the same as that key on the piano, under that finger and it makes that sound. The more you practice, the more well trodden those pathways become, until its almost automatic and subconsciously you are pressing the right key with the right finger when you read the music.
Because our brains do not know the difference between imagination and reality- we can think ourselves into a state of depression., anger or fear. So we may only have one negative encounter but a pathway is created linking that action to a threatening outcome. The more we think about that situation negatively- the stronger the pathway becomes until, just like the piano- we unconsciously react negatively to that situation.
If how we think, affects how we feel and behave- if we think positively, we will feel and act positively.
However, thinking positively isn’t easy and jut saying that to someone in the grip of negative mental health, can lead to frustration and anger and taking them straight back into the limbic system.
Rather- it is easier to change how you act, which in turn will impact how you think and how you ultimately feel. This is again based on neuroscience, not a bumper sticker!
You will have heard about dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These are all the feel-good chemicals in our brains.
They have an evolutionary purpose- which is to encourage us to repeat the positive behaviour. We call it the 3 P’s.
Positive interaction. We are innately social as a species as being a tribe ensures our survival much more than going it alone. So when we socialise- we get a hit of those reward chemicals. We feel good and so we repeat the behaviour.
Positive Action. When we relax, we also get a hit of those chemicals, as we need to rest in order to restore ourselves. We have a happy flow of these chemicals when we get proper and a fitful nights sleep- which is why people often say they wake up feeling better. Exercise has the same impact.
Positive thought.When we think positively we get that hit. If you get excited about a future holiday or remember a happy time, you can literally feel those happy chemicals surging around your body making you feel warm and fuzzy.