One evening as I was laying down in bed, with some negative thoughts hijacking my mind, a strong realization came about: irrespective of how mature, young, old, happy, successful we are, or not, our brain is designed to see, enforce or zoom in on the negative more rapidly than on the positive. How we perceive our reality especially as it comes to the negative has more to do with our evolutionary brain than with the specific circumstances of our existence.
Indeed, the three brain theory developed by the American physician and neurologist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s posits that there are three brain structures in a human brain, developed over time and across species: (1) reptilian, lizard or primitive brain -which is our earliest portion of our brains and responsible for our instincts and the most basic survival functions; (2) mammalian or limbic brain -which is an intermediate brain structure, shared with other mammals, and responsible for emotions and socializing; and (3) primate (neocortex) brain -which is our “smart” brain, the most recent addition in brain development responsible for our logic and thinking.
If this theory was true, high-level, what does this ultimately mean? This means that our fascinating brains are designed to be the marvelous gatekeepers of our own human existence and survival via both instinct-based defense mechanisms but also thoughtful and endearing actions.
This can be a blessing and a curse at the same time for us human beings but the more we understand how our brain functions, the more we can use this knowledge to enable mental and physical well-being. Like with any product or device, the more we understand the parameters of design and set those correctly, the better and longer its functioning is. How would that look like in day-to-day life?
- Monitor the reptilian brain. Every time, there is a real or perceived threat, our lizard brains will trigger us into action including getting angry, running away, or procrastinating. Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for such responses that indicate our survival is rightfully or questionably under challenge. The more we are self-aware to our state of danger – real or perceived – the more we can control it.
- Use emotions as an alarm system. Emotions are indicators to be gauged not suppressed. Emotions are like a roadmap towards our destiny – the more we pay attention to our emotions, the more we are guided to lean in and discover who we are and what the next step of our journey is. The biggest blessings and gifts can come when raw emotions are allowed to take existence and speak to us. They are our Sherpa in our life journeys if we have the courage, honesty and discipline to investigate and build on their meaning.
- Use our superpower. Thinking is our superpower as human beings. When we conceptualize what is happening and why, when we interpret our emotions, our higher mind kicks in. As parents, we know that kids’ tantrums will last less if we connect and name their big emotions -name it to tame it. By using our thinking superpower, our instincts and emotions will be reined in under a mental framework that calms and finds meaning and resources.
Three key practices that strengthen the ability to rewire our brains:
- Meditate: Oftentimes coupled with visualization or remembrance of positive events and emotions, meditation was found to have a powerful impact upon areas of the brain associated with stress, empathy, resilience and emotional intelligence.
- Surround yourself with positive people in a positive environment. Like a spam filter, we always have an option to release, allow or block a sender or a message. What goes in is what goes out. The more negativity we allow or enable, the more negative our environment becomes.
- Be compassionate: be it vis-à-vis yourself or those around you, compassion is key to connection and sense of worth. When we lose that, we lose our souls. Engage in a practice of compassion or self-compassion as the fuel required to ignite our lives and relationships.
In summary, we have a primitive brain that has been passed onto us by means of survival. By design, we want to preserve our existence, avoid hurt and danger – which oftentimes puts us into a flight, fight or freeze mode. Such functioning can sustain or trigger negative feelings or emotions, and negative behaviors in our different roles and vis-à-vis ourselves or those around us -parents, spouse, children, friends, colleagues, etc…
The moment we understand that we are designed in this way, we can save ourselves or others some pain, or enrich our existence. Our brain system can be a guide towards healing and growth. No other species has that. It is in us and for us.