Evolution – the good and the bad
There is a theory (not accepted by all) that we have an old part to our brain and a newer, more developed part. The old part of the brain, sometimes referred to as our “lizard/reptilian brain” is the part of the brain that protected us many many years ago. It is the part of the brain responsible for reacting swiftly to danger, it is focused on survival and is the most basic part our brain – made up of the brain stem and the cerebellum. It also controls basic functions such as breathing and heart rate.
Next came the limbic part (mammalian brain) of the brain which allowed us to experience emotions and process memories – this part of the brain is made up of the amygdala and the hypothalamus.(Dogs and cats have this type of evolved brain). It operates on an unconscious level and without any concept of time. There are also theories that the limbic brain cannot tell the difference between real danger (eg. a lion in front of you) and an imagined threat (thinking of the fear and danger of a lion about to attack you).
Finally, the neocortex formed which included the frontal lobe – giving us “theory of mind” – the ability to have empathy for others and think through situations before reacting. The problem with this is that now we have the ability to think up and imagine all sorts of fears and “what if” scenarios. I watch my dog some days, cavorting around in the garden – living life in the present moment and I often wish I could be more like that. Instead, humans now have this ability to live in our minds and be fearful even when real danger isn’t present. I would’ve personally preferred a brain that could stop and think, make sense of things and understand others, but that couldn’t spend hours on end perceiving threats that may never exist. How annoying! The limbic system, which apparently cannot tell the difference reacts to threat by increasing heart rate (palpitations), causing bodily sensations associated with stress (hence modern day anxiety, stress and panic attacks).
Mindfulness is one way to counteract an overactive frontal lobe. Try it two three times a day. Stop what you are doing and focus on what is in your immediate environment. Focus on your breathing, think about your toes and work your attention up through your body. If you are eating a meal – really concentrate on the flavours, colours and textures of the food. It is all about staying in the present moment. Realize in that moment that you are safe. Right in that moment, there is no imminent threat to your life. Sometimes we need to do this to reset our internal tensions levels. We pay far too much attention to our wayward thoughts and this strategy can help us to retrain our minds to filter through our thoughts and pick and choose the ones we want to use and act on.
The subconscious brain is the ultimate decision maker; it always wins. In some cases, it is the unconscious reptilian brain that is concerned with our survival, “saving us from ourselves”, as it were. If it determines a situation is not good for us, it will say, “No”.
Can our conscious brain ever win? Understanding the different roles of our three brains—and especially the combined functions of our unconscious and subconscious brains—is important in understanding our self-sabotaging behaviours and in beginning to take control.
Recognising that our conscious, thinking, logical brain is actually only responsible for, at best, 20% of our decision making helps explain why changing behaviour or making other changes can be so challenging.
You see, for the purpose of healing old childhood wounds, the mammalian brain tries to re-create childhood responses. This repetition compulsion, as it’s called, is why we can end up repeating behaviours again and again, even when we don’t want to.
So, until a fourth part of our brain evolves that hopefully helps us to separate fact from fiction and immediately destroys nonsensical thoughts before they reach our consciousness, I am going to practise mindfulness, eat, sleep, listen to music and probably stress a lot in between!!