Reconnect to your Core.Chapter 2 - excerpt.
The Triune Brain Theory
To really understand yourself it’s necessary to have a correct understanding of how the brain works. It may come as a surprise to most people to realize that even though we only have one mind it actually consists of three different brains! This concept is called the Triune Brain Theory and was developed by the American neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean.
Our three brains are the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the primate/human brain. Generally speaking the reptilian brain is concerned with survival, fight-or-flight responses, and it has an aggressive kill-or-be-killed mentality. The mammalian brain is the part of the brain where our feelings originate. To reproduce and to eat, in addition to getting, acquiring, and dominating others, is its prime motivations. The primate/human brain is where our spiritual values and our ability for rational and abstract thinking is located. Its main focus is love, learning, truth, beauty, freedom, justice, and creation.
The three brains operate simultaneously in our mind, but they do not necessarily cooperate with each other. In fact, each brain has its own agenda and different goals it wants to accomplish. To make matters worse, each brain often wants totally different things for us at the same time! And to make matters even worse, most of what’s going on inside our brains, especially in the reptilian and the mammalian brain, are happening unconsciously. That means that most of the time we’re totally unaware of what’s really going on in our mind. The three brains are each competing for our attention and trying to influence our decisions and behaviors without us even consciously knowing that this «Battle of our mind» is going on.
These unconscious processes affect you at every moment to a far greater extent than you may be aware of. To be unaware of the hardwired processes of the unconscious mind is a cause of great frustration and suffering for billions of people across the world. Simultaneously will awareness of these processes give you a great advantage towards understanding yourself, overcoming and regulating your anxiety, and achieving self-confidence and happiness.
Our mind is constantly trying to mediate a compromise between the three different brains. As an analogy you may think of the mind as the team and the three brains as the players, and that your three players most of the time don’t even try to play on the same team.
The reptilian brain is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. It’s located deep within the brain close to the brain stem and the spine. It’s responsible for our central nervous system and the automatic functions of our body.
These functions include among other things: temperature regulation, food digestion, hair growth, breathing, heartbeat, and blood flow. Imagine the hassle if you had to consciously think about digesting your food or remember constantly to keep your body at the correct temperature. It’s a good thing that the reptilian brain takes responsibility for these actions so we can focus our attention on other things.
The most important task of the reptilian brain in regard to our mental health is that the reptilian brain is responsible for our unconscious anxiety mechanism (UAM). If you’re driving on the highway and a car swerves in front of you the UAM activates and prepares your body for action. This makes you alert and able to respond to danger immediately.
In response to threats in the environment the UAM automatically triggers anxiety. Just try to envision if you had to stop and think if it’s actually dangerous that a car swerves in front of you. Thankfully this «evaluation» has already been done by the reptilian brain in a few milliseconds! Therefore you don’t have to waste valuable time when your survival is at stake to stop and think when you need to instinctively react either with a fight or with a flight response. It’s of great survival value that our body reacts with immediate fight-or-flight energy when danger is suddenly upon us, because to stop and evaluate everything that might be dangerous might be very dangerous.
However the reptilian brain triggers the UAM not only to external threats such as oncoming traffic or dangerous animals. It has also learned that some of our feelings might be «dangerous» to our survival. Therefore the anxiety response is triggered whenever feelings that are forbidden or perceived as dangerous to our survival gets activated in our body.
When the threat is external we call the anxiety response «fear», but when the threat is internal and comes from perceived dangerous feelings we call the anxiety response «anxiety». However, most people have low skills at discerning between the two, therefore many mistakenly interpret their anxiety to mean that they’re afraid. But anxiety doesn’t mean that you’re afraid, it simply means that your unconscious mind is covering up your feelings.
Let’s use as an example a young girl that gets angry at her mother. Her reptilian brain «knows» unconsciously that she’s dependent on the mother for survival since the mother protects her and nurtures her. Therefore any rupture in the attachment bond will be perceived as a threat to the girl’s survival by the reptilian brain since the mother gives the girl shelter, food, protection, and human connection. Unless the girl receives help from her mother to accept and regulate her feelings, the UAM will set in and give the girl anxiety instead of anger if her anger isn’t tolerated by the mother, because unaided her anger will trigger unconscious guilt which will trigger the UAM.
Since the main motivation of the reptilian brain is survival it understands that if the anger towards mother were to be unleashed it could result in dramatic consequences. In the most extreme case it would lead to the death of the mother if the raging girl actually killed her. In that extreme scenario the girl would then be alone in the world with no one to protect, shelter, or feed her. The attachment instinct therefore trigger guilt in the girl as a consequence of her aggressive impulses to ensure the girl’s survival.
The reptilian brain will always trump the mammalian and the primate brain, because it holds the UAM ace card. This because the reptilian brain believes it more important to survive than to express feelings or to «love».
If the girl doesn’t get help to regulate her feelings, to recognize them, and to receive acceptance of them, then all she is left with is pure animal energy in the form of anger/rage, with subsequent guilt, which can be too overwhelming for her. It may be especially overwhelming for the girl if the mother in addition reacts negatively towards her daughter’s anger. If the mother becomes anxious, starts yelling, condescends, cries, ignores, ridicules, or attempts to make the daughter be ashamed of her feelings, it will further rupture the attachment bond between mother and daughter. This may lead to separation between them that the daughter’s reptilian brain equates with death. This anger-guilt loop then creates the daughter’s «fear of her own feeling» (i.e. anxiety), because now her reptilian brain will gradually put a lid on her anger in order to avoid guilt and maintain the attachment bond between mother and daughter.
Gradually from now on her reptilian brain will give her anxiety instead of anger whenever she’s angry. First this will be the case in regards to anger towards mother and other attachment figures, but this tendency might also spread to include other people she’s relating to such as classmates, friends, siblings, teachers, and even strangers.
Unaided, it’s likely she’ll come to understand the primitive murderous impulses in her as something she herself is responsible for. She may then interpret these impulses as something that’s «bad» about her, rather than getting help accepting these feelings as «just feelings», and this sows the seed for unconscious guilt, which is the cause of symptoms and psychological problems.
In nature when you study the behavior of reptiles (i.e. snakes, crocodiles, and lizards etc) you’ll notice that their behavior towards one another is very violent. A reptile mom often eats her «children»! To kill and be killed is the natural order of things, and death is something reptiles are always on the lookout for. Its entire consciousness is devoted to survival. To stay safe, avoid being killed, survive, and kill others that are a threat to its survival, are its main objectives. At the inner core of our own mind this mechanism/instinct is dominant since the reptilian brain trumps the other two brains. To first and foremost survive is the main goal, and it will try to accomplish that by any means necessary.
The reptilian brain never forgets something that could be a threat to survival. Even now in adult life it will trigger the UAM when feelings activates that once (maybe even 90 years ago!) were viewed as dangerous to the attachment bond. Even though we now logically understand that these feelings are no longer dangerous, it doesn’t matter to the reptilian brain. Its motto is: «Once a dangerous feeling, always a threat to survival». Potentially every kind of feeling, even the good ones, can be associated with danger by the reptilian brain. Even happiness and love, feelings that could potentially give a person life-energy and self-confidence can be viewed by the reptilian brain as something that could equal death!
Anxiety is the danger signal inside us that triggers whenever feelings once learned were dangerous are close to conscious awareness. Anxiety triggers unconsciously (i.e. outside of your awareness) and it only takes 12 milliseconds (0.012 seconds) from when a feeling gets triggered until anxiety «attacks it». You do not «decide to get anxious» any more than you can decide to willfully grow your hair or digest your food. You do not yourself flip the anxiety switch inside you so to speak. Rather you are merely taken by it, your body actives itself, tenses up, and gets the heart beating fast whether you want to or not. Something inside you actives your body without your consent! Isn’t that fascinating! That means that forces outside your control influence your every waking moment! For some this may be a scary concept. However, you can learn to trust your own unconscious and not fear it, and that will be the focus in Chapter 9.
The mammalian brain is the area of the brain that surrounds the reptilian brain. Contrary to the reptilian brain whose sole motivation is survival, the mammalian brain is a bit more sophisticated although it’s still very much animal in nature.
It’s main motivation is to reproduce and to get things it wants. Most of the time what it wants is food and an attractive mate, but it also wants power and status. It wants to dominate others and get their submission. It has a my-way-or-the-highway attitude and if it doesn’t get what it wants this causes frustration which often leads to aggression and violence.
The mammalian brain consists of the middle parts of our brain and generally speaking it’s our emotional brain. We share this part of our brain with every mammal on the planet such as dogs, cats, and tigers etc. As can be witnessed in the animal world, there are some mammals that are more benign and some that are more predatory. You’ve probably seen the rage of the tiger, the joy of the kitten, the sadness of the grieving elephant, the love of the mare towards its foal, or the guilty dog when she’s eaten from the table.
You may recall from the previous chapter that our primary feelings that constitutes our emotional blueprint or the generic system of the unconscious (the GSU) are:
Different researchers have at different times added a few more, such as disgust (when eating inedible foods), but for the sake of simplicity the five feelings mentioned above are the ones that we’ll focus on throughout the book.
Mammals, when they live free in nature, express these feelings instinctively and effortlessly. Two cats may be angry at each other, their anger comes up, they arch their backs and hiss, and usually that’s that. Mammals don’t linger afterwards wondering: «Was it right to express my anger?». No, free mammals just are, they experience their feelings and let everyone know what they feel without thought or anxiety. After the feeling has been felt and experienced, they let the feeling go and return to their normal relaxed state. They don’t have the urge to repress or judge their feelings like many humans do, because their UAM hasn’t learned to equate their feelings with danger. Instead, they treat their feelings as something natural and as a spontaneous thing that comes and goes.
Feelings are triggered unconsciously in every mammal and human being. What gets triggered is a physical activation which again trigger fantasies and impulses. The physical activation itself is wordless and thoughtless. It’s manifested in our stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, legs, genitals, feet, neck, and face.
Each feeling activates itself uniquely in the body. Anger is often described as a boiling sensation in the chest, a red and hot face, clenching of the jaws and fists, activation in the stomach, and an impulse to move the hands and feet. The feeling of anger is just that: a physical activation, fantasies, and impulses. It’s not our thoughts! You can feel the anger physically and sense the impulse to lash out, but it doesn’t mean the thought: «Life is unfair! I wish everyone could behave as I want them to.». The content of the thought is one thing, while the physical activation and the impulse are something completely different. However, the majority of people confuse their physical feeling with their thoughts.
The physical activation during the height of the feeling may become very intense. Picture how a tiger reacts if someone tries to take its food. That situation is most likely going to end in violence. We humans also have this ability to go from a relaxed state to shaking murderous rage in a short time (and people that can’t intuit this «dark side» within them are in denial). However, the intensity and fierceness of these feelings may become too overwhelming for a young child (and for most adults also) if feelings aren’t fully accepted in the original home environment.
If a child’s emotional experience is met with an attachment person’s anxiety or lack of understanding then the child becomes «afraid» of his feelings. His ego will then invent defense mechanisms to distract him from his anxiety. He may start to second-guess himself, worry, rationalize, doubt his own feelings, or blame himself for the existence of his feelings.
A child that negatively judges his own feelings and takes a position of shame will perhaps think such things as: «A good boy doesn’t have feelings like this.», or «I must be a bad boy since I feel like that.». Then he mistakenly labels his waves of feelings and impulses as something he himself is personally responsible for, and as if he himself made the feeling exist in the first place. He then takes personal responsibility for what an unconscious part of him is responsible for. This often leads to further defense mechanisms and psychological symptoms such as further self-blame, low self-esteem, avoidance behavior, and passivity.
Our feelings are like waves that overtakes us but then runs out after a short while if they’re not being met with any resistance. They have a beginning, a climax, and an ending. You do not yourself control if your feelings are activated, however what you actually do control is your willingness to experience their physical activation and impulses while they exist in you.
This is the part of our mind that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our ability to observe our stream of consciousness (the ego), our ability for abstract and logical thinking, our ability to direct our attention, and our ability for moral thinking and spiritual awareness, are all human qualities that separates us from the need-to-get function and survival instinct of the animal-ego.
Moral, spiritual, and ethical thinking are faculties of a higher order. Examples of these are the ability to love unconditionally, the ability for selfless service, the ability to delay gratification for a greater good, the ability for compassion, kindness, forgiveness, contentment, harmony, responsibility for others, and valuing something greater than ourselves. Many scientists believe that we are born with a moral compass and a sense of justice, and studies show that children focus at an early age on what’s right or wrong and what’s fair or unfair.
Honesty is an example of a spiritual value. The reptile and the mammal may on occasion be honest creatures, but when their survival instincts or desires are strong enough, their honesty is quickly discarded. This is also the case with humans that are more aligned with their reptilian and mammalian brains (their ego) than with their human brain (their Self). These people may claim to be honest, but when really put to the test it’s proven that they value their own survival or reputation more than their spiritual values.
At Yale in the 1960’s the American psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous behavioral experiment where people were told to give electric shocks to a person that failed to answer correctly on a learning test. The shocking results (which have since been duplicated many times) was that 80 % of the participants would administer an incrementally stronger electric shock until death occurred to the «tester», just because a test administrator told them to do so. The electrical shocks were «fake» since the experiment was staged, but the participants didn’t know this.
80 % of the population will actually choose to kill another person in order to avoid anxiety and confrontation/feelings with an authority figure rather than standing up for spiritual values such as compassion, love, and respect for human life. If the results of this study are generalized one may argue that 80 % of mankind are more reptilian and mammalian in nature, even though they walk the earth looking like human beings.
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