I learned a great deal about the brain during my education, first to become a dentist, and then for my second career when I was training to become a psychotherapist. I found that learning a few simple and practical things about the brain also enhanced my ability to negotiate my own challenges and improved my wellbeing. Moved to pay that information forward, I welcome you to a 5-Part series called “Getting to Know Your Three Brains.” Part 1 & Part 2 spell out the basics. Part 3 guides you through a practical "experiment" to try out your new knowledge (although I hope you will have already experimented on your own!) Part 4 and Part 5 addresses pitfalls, like triggers and challenges to becoming aware. I hope this series sparks new growth and learning for you.
I no longer find it helpful to think of humans as having just one brain. Instead, I like to think of us as having three brains: a thinking brain, an emotional brain, and a body brain:
The thinking brain gives rise to our thoughts, beliefs, and judgments.
The emotional brain gives rise to our emotions and generates pictures, still snapshots and movies. Sometimes we are aware of the pictures our mind makes, like when we actively fantasize. Most of the time, however, these pictures are out of awareness unless we slow down to bring awareness to them.
The body brain affects our internal organs. The body brain, when activated by emotions, produces big changes in the body. When we feel scared, for example, our heart beats faster, our breathing changes, and our stomach hurts. The body brain explains why we might feel an impulse to hit someone or something when we are enraged.
With purposeful slowing down, noticing, and practicing awareness, we can make conscious all of the above aspects of our 3 brains! That's when things really start to change for the better!!!
To clarify how to actually use this brain knowledge in every day life, here’s a personal example:
I was invited to a social gathering and happy about that, but I was getting more and more nervous about going by myself. I started to doubt my decision to go. “Maybe it's a mistake,” I started telling myself. My mind started looking for excuses not to go.
What did I actually do?
As I was stressing about it in the middle of the night, I actively turned my attention to each of my three brains. I wanted to see what was going on up there that I might not be so aware of. Perhaps, I could then help myself.
I noticed two visual images my mind was making, one positive and one negative. In the positive one, everything was going well. I saw myself talking to people and having fun. In the other, I saw myself standing alone feeling awkward. I was unable to penetrate the many conversations going on around me.
The emotions I was having were varied and conflicting, which is not unusual for the brain. I was excited about the party, and I was scared I wouldn’t fit in. I was also palpably anxious probably from the conflicting mix of emotions.
Physically, I noticed my stomach was now clenched and my breathing was shallow.
I was aware I had two conflicting beliefs about myself. When the positive image was in the forefront of my mind, I saw myself fitting in and having conversations with others. My belief when I had that picture in my mind was “I am fine and I can go to this party and survive no matter what happens.” My negative belief went with my negative image of not fitting in. My negative belief was: “I am different and weird and no one will be interested in talking to me.” I noticed that when this upsetting image was in the forefront of my mind, it made me feel bad about myself and small.
How did awareness of my three brains help me cope?
I mustered up all the mental energy I had and chose to focus on the positive scenario. I wanted to be courageous and try going. I actively pushed my mind in the direction I decided I wanted it to go. I allowed my fear about going to the party to exist, I gave my fear compassion, and validated it knowing that “feelings just are.” But, ultimately I made a conscious decision not to act on my fear. Additionally, I repeatedly reminded myself that if I felt embarrassed for any reason, I would get over it, and ultimately be glad I at least tried. So, to review, what does learning about the brain give us?
Ability to recognize and control impulses;
Ability to calm emotions and the accompanying physical sensations they produce;
Ability to challenge our negative beliefs about our Self and others;
Enhanced ability to think through the best course of action that is in sync with what we want both in the long run, as well as the short run.
How did I use my knowledge of the three brains to avoid feeling worse?
Just as we have the power to enhance well-being in specific ways, we can interfere with well-being in other ways. Knowledge of the three brains helps insure we don’t worsen our problems by:
1. Reinforcing negative beliefs and worries by replaying them over and over again in our mind. Negative thoughts are the brain’s default setting. We have to catch what our brain is doing and refocus our thoughts with purpose. Allowing negative thoughts to continue unquestioned or uninterrupted strengthens the wiring of those negative brain cell networks and makes us feel worse.
2. Not calming our emotions. We can choose to actively calm our emotions and work with painful feelings so they diminish. Alternatively, we can amplify negative feelings and feel worse. If we amplify feelings that feel good like joy, excitement and pride in the self, we will likely feel better and more confident.
3. Engaging in self-destructive behaviors. When we act in ways that are bad for us, we predictably feel emotionally worse, which adds to physical stress and pain.
Being aware of the ways we further our distress, such as the three examples above, gives us the opportunity to stop our brain from going to those automatic places that don't help. In essence, the brain-work I am advocating gives us power and control over our mind as we honor and accept ourselves fully. Most of us live day to day by blocking aspects of ourselves that cause us pain or conflict. But, we all know that burying things inside leads to physical and psychological symptoms and disconnection from our authentic selves. Understanding how to use the various parts of the brain to deal with problems as they arise helps us live well.
We humans are complicated and nuanced, but our brains behave predictably. I find this very reassuring — there is a reliable path to wellness. How long it takes to change the brain and how to achieve the changes we want varies widely for each of us. But, the basic principles are similar for us all. I hope to pass on additional practical and simple brain knowledge in subsequent parts of this series.
Read Part 2.