In Part 1 of this series, I hoped to excite your desire to learn about the brain. In this post, I will address the notion of the Self. To review from Part 1, think of yourself as having not just one, but three brains:
your thinking brain,
your emotional brain,
your body brain.
The thinking brain conjures your thoughts. The emotional brain is where emotions and impulses arise. The body brain causes changes in your body when you have emotions. The body brain controls changes in breathing, heart rate, muscular tension, gastrointestinal tension and so on. The job of the body brain is to ready our bodies for survival actions.
You can see in the picture how the body brain extends downward. It connects the brain to the whole body through the spinal cord.
What is The Self?
Along with the three brains, we also have a Self. The Self is the core "you." The Self is how you were born before the challenges of life shaped you. It is the part of you that, when fully accessed, says, "I feel like me!" People who have had excessive hardship may feel very disconnected from their Self. That is because the Self can hide if it feels threatened.
We know we are connected to our Self when we can access even a small sense of calm, confidence, connection, compassion, curiosity in our inner world, and clarity of thought. The Self can relate constructively to the three brains. Using the Self to notice The Self has the ability to notice what each of the three brains is doing and work with it. For example, the Self could say about the thinking brain, emotional brain and body brain respectively, "I am aware that I am obsessing about my teacher not liking me and thinking I’m not smart," "I am aware that I am angry at my boss and I feel an impulse to call him names," and "I am aware that I have butterflies in my stomach when I think about saying NO to my friend’s invitation to come over for dinner."
I strongly encourage you to practice using your Self to notice your thoughts, feelings, impulses and body sensations.
Why am I encouraging you to expend emotional effort to notice what your three brains are doing?
Because the Self, using its capacity for curiosity and compassion, can understand, communicate, and work collaboratively with the three brains. The Self can do things to calm us and guide us on what to do next to feel better and/or solve problems. With practice, we are able to weather emotional storms and meet life’s many challenges with more wisdom and skill.
Examples: When the Self notices and questions an emotion, it could say, "I notice I am feeling ____________. What is this feeling telling me? What do I need or what can I do to calm down?"
For example, let's say I got a bad grade on a test and now my mood shifts for the worse. The Self, with a stance of compassion, tunes into my body and tends to the feelings. The Self tries to name all the feelings there. It finds sadness, fear and shame over my bad grade. The Self validates those emotions and listens to them instead of panicking, beating myself up or numbing my feelings. Now that I have listened to and validated my emotional brain, and employed techniques like breathing and grounding to calm myself, I can think through what, if anything, can be done to help my situation. I may decide to talk to the teacher, do an extra credit project, or realize one bad grade won't ruin my life (it won't!). We can work with feelings in a variety of healthy ways. When the Self notices a worried or obsessive thought, it can question if it's rational or useful. The thought might be born from anxiety or coming from a child part stuck in a memory in our mind. The Self should get very curious about thoughts that cause distress and work with them.
The Self can ask the thinking brain, "What just happened that started me worrying?" And, "What is the purpose of my worrying right now—is it helping anything?" Or, "What emotions are under my worry?” Or, “Is this a new worry or something I've been worried about my entire life?" These questions help us get beyond our thoughts to the underlying feelings, beliefs or personal history that generated them. When the Self takes the time to notice a physical sensation, it might ask, "What just happened that made my stomach tighten up now or my heart start racing?" Sensing the sensation in your stomach or heart and listening for the answer often illuminates it. Staying with the sensation often changes it and is a great way for us to process emotions so our mind and body are restored to a calmer state.
Becoming a Maestro
Here is a simple metaphor to help illustrate how your three brains and your Self work together:
Picture an orchestra with three sections: strings, horns, and percussion. The sections correspond to the thinking brain, emotional brain, and body brain. Now add the conductor, who represents the Self.
The orchestra sounds much better when the conductor leads. Of course, the instruments can still play if the conductor is absent. The problem is that without the conductor, the instruments don't play so well together because they are not coordinated. But when a maestro steps in, he or she creates the most beautiful and harmonious music. I want to help you all become maestros of your mind. As a maestro, you will have more power and control to help yourself and others during hard times and to deepen positive and nourishing experiences so they make a lasting impact.
To be a maestro, we need to be very familiar with the three brains. To start, our Self needs to learn to recognize the difference between a thought, a feeling, and a physical sensation. We work with each one differently. Then we must practice communicating effectively with the three brains. People who work with their three brains in this way feel more organized, and experience greater peace, calm and confidence.
In summary, awareness of the three brains allows us to work with them purposefully. When the Self is in touch simultaneously with thoughts, feelings and body sensations, it is easier to meet life's challenges because we don’t lose ourself as quickly or at all when adversity hits. When we are aware of what we are thinking and feeling, and can use our emotions and sensations to inform and help us, we function better and feel more vital, energized, and alive. It's neuroscience!
All of us can, at any time in our life, learn to be maestros and conduct the three brains with expertise pulling the best from them and showing them how to work together for our benefit.
To learn more and see how others have learned to work with their three brains, read or listen to It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self.