Ever wondered why you do the things you do? Have you ever thought that perhaps some reactions have been over-the-top, but it felt like you had no control over how you behaved?
The latest developments in understanding how the mind works are being revealed by huge advances in neuroscientific research and are exciting and encouraging. In learning how the brain functions we can discover more about our reactions, and find different ways to respond in difficult situations that leave us feeling much better and more in control.
Simply put, our brains have 3 distinct areas with specific functions.
The brain stem, or the reptilian brain, is the most primitive part of our brain. It is formed early on (whilst still in the womb) and is mainly for survival. It functions all the time, even when you are asleep, keeping you breathing and regulating temperature among other things. It constantly assesses whether you are safe or not, and if it senses there is a threat, it reacts immediately.
The limbic system is found in mammals. It makes meaning out of experience, and is hardwired to connect to other people. It balances the need to be close with the need to be safe. It has two important areas: the hippocampus (memory store) and the amygdala (early warning system).
The cortex is the thinking part of the brain that can reason, imagine, visualise, rationalise and determine to do things differently. This part of the brain is found in primates. It too houses memory but can assess how relevant the memory is to a current situation.
The human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons (brain cells) – the same number as stars in the galaxy. It monitors all of the body’s actions and reactions, as well as the external environment. There are trillions of chemical reactions operating every second, and with signals being transmitted at over 260 miles an hour, it is a complex and amazingly efficient operating system. Each operation creates a neurological pathway and as we repeat behaviour, that pathway becomes more and more like a motorway as part of its efficiency drive. It is said that neurons that fire together, wire together. So it is more likely that if we react in a certain way, we are predisposed to continue that way.
When the brain stem and limbic system react to perceived threat, the body goes into survival mode and is mobilised for fight, flight or freeze. When that happens, the cortex is “shut down”, meaning that we are in reaction mode, unable to reason or question whether our response is appropriate or not. Off we go down the motorway of our usual response pattern, whether it be a verbal outburst of anger, or a shut down and withdrawal.
This knowledge provides two interesting pieces of information. The first is that our reactions and responses are perfectly normal – our brains are designed to do exactly what they do to keep us functioning and keep us safe. The second is that we can create new neurological pathways when we want to change our behaviour (sometimes called brain plasticity).
The first step is awareness. Find ways to notice your reactions. Sometimes called reflective practice or reflexivity, it is like a mind scan of your behaviour and reactions, as if you are an observer of your mind. Observing your reactions helps you separate your “self” from your thoughts and behaviours. Taking an observer position, we can notice that at times we are calm, and at times we are anxious, but instead of allowing those feelings to drive our behaviour, we can encourage ourselves to think “Isn’t that interesting?”, or “I wonder what that feeling is all about?”.
The practice of mindfulness is another way of becoming aware of ourselves and the way we react. Mindfulness is a totally self-accepting meditative approach where we practice being fully aware of all our senses right now without judging or condemning ourselves. We are not driven by our concerns about past occurrences or about the future, but focus on the “now”.
When we start to become more aware of our responses through reflective practice, or mindfulness, and understand how our brains are designed to operate, we can then begin to calm our limbic brains when they scream “danger, threat, system alert”. Of course there are times when a fight/flight/freeze reaction is appropriate, such as an encounter with a poisonous snake or an attacker with a gun. The problem is that our reptilian brains often scream “danger” when there is no real threat, only a perceived threat, and the cortex is shut down before it can dispute the call, and start to calm things down.
This response is often laid down as a result of childhood experience, laying a foundation for future responses that may not be helpful to the adult self.
The old adage to count to ten is very wise, as it gives us time to re-activate the cortex and assess the threat rationally.
Think about a time when you faced a difficult conversation. If it went badly, and you felt under attack, the memory store in your brain has kept elements of that situation in the early warning data. So, the next time anything slightly similar comes around, the brain reacts as if it is another threatening situation. As the cortex (which can access memories in context and on a timescale) has been suspended, the brain has not taken into account that you now have developed some assertiveness skills, for example, or that in this situation you are not feeling so vulnerable. As you “mind yourself”, you can observe this initial reaction, notice it, and calm the system down by reminding yourself that this is a different situation and there is no need for that anxiety.
Memories laid down in childhood are even more ingrained. Think of the power of a fear of dogs that has come from a childhood incident. The more a child growing up has a sense of safety in their lives, the more able they are to "mind themselves" and self soothe as an adult. For those who grow up in a less nurturing environment, however, it is still possible to develop new neurological pathways that enable more appropriate responses than those of defensiveness or hostility.
So … make friends with your brain. Learn about how it operates and begin to observe the ways you react and respond in different situations. Start to design your own neural pathways which mean you know yourself, respect yourself, and can manage your reactions instead of allowing them to manage you!