I thought I would start off on a humorous note with my opening sentence, but there is nothing funny about the subject for today, which is our brain. Of course, our brain is a great gift. For example, it allows me to write this article and you to read it. And it is thanks to our brains that we have computers, airplanes, space travel. Great things are possible when we remain in charge of our brain and direct it to do our bidding.
But for many, it is the brain that is in charge and our body that does its bidding. In other words, some make the brain their servant, while many become the servant of their brain. Let me explain what I mean by beginning with a brief introduction to our brain.
Our brain is really three brains stacked on top of one another. The first is our brain stem and cerebellum. Together they form what is often called the ‘reptilian brain’ because it is so primitive and similar to the brains of reptiles. This brain developed about 250 million years ago.
Next we have the limbic brain, which rests on top of and around the ‘reptilian brain.’ It is also called the ‘mammalian brain’ as it is similar to the brains of mammals that developed about 60 million years ago. This brain is also called the midbrain since it rests in the middle of our three brains.
Our third brain is our thinking brain and is called the cerebral cortex or neocortex. It is the wrinkly surface of the brain that we are all familiar with and it is divided into two hemispheres. It is the biggest part of our brain and it covers the limbic brain. It developed very slowly in mammals and by 40,000 years ago was already a powerful computer that eventually blossomed into the miracle of our present brain.
Our ‘reptilian brain’ can be called a reactive brain, for whenever a threat appears it immediately causes the owner of the brain to flee, fight, or surrender. It is a protective or survival mechanism. While it serves animals well and rescued primitive man from many dangers, today, it is the source of many of our problems.
The problems faced by primitive man were those of survival, such as food and shelter. But for most of us, we are no longer facing problems of that magnitude. Yet, we are programmed by our ‘reptilian brain’ to automatically run from danger. Since most of us no longer face grave danger, our ‘reptilian brain’ reacts to imagined threats. Why are so many people angry all the time? Because they imagine that they live in a hostile world and their primitive brain puts them in a fight or flight frame of mind. If we imagine someone doesn’t like us, we sense a threat and we automatically shift into an attack ‘mode by criticizing, insulting, or arguing with that person.
If we imagine our job at the office is too difficult to handle, we are programmed to flee (run away from or avoid) our responsibilities. And if we find a task overwhelming, we may react by surrendering (believing it is hopeless and that we are helpless, so we give up).
Our limbic or ‘mammalian brain’ is the seat of our emotions, which are valuable messengers, if we listen to them. The problem is, whenever we experience a negative emotion, such as fear or anger, we automatically react by fleeing, fighting, or surrendering. In our case (as humans), our ‘reptilian and mammalian brains’ work as a team and form what can be called our ‘old brain.’ Designed to protect, it now holds us back. Using our old brain to guide us is like using a vacuum tube in a microchip world. Don’t send your thinking brain (neocortex) on vacation by living your life on autopilot, unless you want to be a zombie!
Why don’t more people do something about this and correct their behavior? Well, easier said than done! You see, first of all, we are programmed to flee, fight, or surrender from real or imagined threats. This isn’t always bad. For instance, suppose I am crossing a street when suddenly a speeding car comes veering in my direction. If I were to stop to think and analyze the situation, I could very well get run over and killed before reaching a conclusion. The fact is, sometimes there’s no time to think. That’s why we are programmed to react to danger without thinking. But what is the reality? We rarely, if ever, need to act without thinking. No question about it, in most cases, reacting without thinking instead of thoughtfully thinking things through leads to more, not less problems.
Another reason for not correcting our behavior is, as we allow ourselves to succumb to our natural inclinations (programming), we established a habitual pattern, and habits are hard to break, aren’t they? But wait, there’s more. Our bad habit then causes us to experience failure, and repeated failures cause us to think we are failures. In other words, we form the belief that we are destined to fail. Our belief, in turn, acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, which further entrenches the behavior in our lives. As we experience one failure after another, they reinforce our belief, proving (in our mind) that we are indeed failures. So, our programming, habits, and beliefs act as strands of a powerful cable, seemingly impossible to break.
But break it we must, for if we don’t gain control, we will live in fear, acting out as a shadow of our true potential. Would you want to drive on a major highway in a Model T Ford? It makes just as little sense to allow ourselves to be lead around by our ‘old brain.’
When we allow our ‘old brain’ to run our lives, we come to believe people are ‘threats’ and the world is ‘unfair.’ We revert to infantile behavior, making demands, and expect to be catered to by the world. Making demands is foolhardy because they will never be met, and failure to meet them leads to frustration, intensifying our suffering. And each time we make a demand, we are running away from life. Instead of being grateful for all we have, we spit in the face of life and ask, “Is this all you are going to give me? I want more! I’m entitled to it!”
Yes, we want more, but we don’t want to work for it. Why don’t we want to work for it? Because we imagine work is painful, and that triggers an automatic reaction from our ‘old brain,’ which causes us to avoid it.
It’s clear that we need to put our thinking brain back in charge, but how do we do so? Here are steps we can take:
1. Understand the process. That’s the purpose of this article.
2. Learn to feel your emotions. That is, don’t act on them but feel them, become aware of them before you act. Think before acting.
3. Once you feel your emotions, ask yourself, “What is the message they are conveying?” If you are feeling good, the message is you are doing the right thing, so keep on doing it. But if you are feeling bad (angry, sad, unhappy, anxious), the message is you are doing something wrong; you need to do things differently. Ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing? What is something I can do now, however small, to get closer to a solution to my problem?”
4. If you want to change, but feel resistance, understand that is your old brain trying to get you to duck your responsibilities, avoid work, or criticize and blame others. Tell your old brain, “Sorry, I’m putting my thinking brain in charge of my life and I expect your full cooperation.”
5. Learn the differences between real and imagined threats. Having a speeding car veer at you or being caught in the midst of a raging forest fire are real threats. But being insulted or laughed at are imaginary threats that lack the power to harm you, unless you succumb to the call of your ‘old brain.’
6. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, feel sorry for others, and make the world easier for them (and yourself) by accepting them. When you learn how to respond appropriately, you not only shift from misery to happiness, but you make a solid contribution to the world.
7. Realize that people are decent at heart, but because they live in fear and are troubled, they treat others rudely, but all of this changes when you change. Open your heart and you open the door to happiness.
8. Accept that neither fear nor suffering gives you the right to make demands. Rather, your fear and suffering need to be transmuted to strength and compassion.
9. If you don’t understand that it’s not about me but about we, and then you, you’re missing the point of life. Devoting yourself to we and you fills your life with meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.
10. If you find this material difficult to accept, it is not surprising for we are programmed to run away by denial, rationalization, and blaming others for our failures. Keep reflecting on these ideas until you can apply them and reap the rewards of a full and balanced life.
11. If you do understand the material, make sure your understanding is more than intellectually, but experientially. That is, integrate the material into your life and experience it fully.
12. After learning important psychological principles, too many people use what they learn to judge the behavior of others. But we can never know the true intentions of others because we are not mind readers, and there are countless explanations for why they do the things they do. We can only understand our own motives. It is only when we apply these principles to ourselves that we can benefit. So don’t try to apply what you learn to others. To be useful, it needs to be applied to yourself alone.
The Point of It All
We are not meant to grovel in self-pity, but to stand tall as we vanquish every doubt and fear. Just as blood surges through our body, nourishing it, the life force or life principle surges through our spirit, empowering us if we only tune into it.
By life force I mean that power which shouted itself into existence and since eons past propelled life forward, always changing, always adapting, always surmounting every obstacle. Cataclysmic events could not stop it, for the greater the hurdle, the higher it leapt, the greater the problem, the stronger it became.
Yes, that mighty life force is ever at our side, but how do we tap into it? We do so by meeting it halfway, by acting as if we have the power, by taking the first step. As we move toward it, it moves toward us. This great power is always available, but like the sun, rain, or wind, we are free to harness it or ignore it. The more we call upon it, the more we shall overcome, and the more we overcome, the easier it will become to overcome more. Every challenge we face is a call to greatness, an invitation to discover our power. How shall we respond? Your brain is no stronger than its weakest think, so think carefully!
The Brain: The Story of Youby David Eagleman
The Human Brain Bookby Rita Carter
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Scienceby Norman Doidge
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental ForcebyJeffrey M. Schwartz MD
Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being by Rudolph E. Tanzi Ph.D. and Deepak Chopra
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel
© Chuck Gallozzi
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