Often with personal reflections, the identity of self or I as we call it comes into focus. What is the biology of I – does it live in the brain, heart or some place else? Understanding brain anatomy helps answer these questions and explain the mechanics of thought-feeling-behaviour interactions.
BRAIN FUNCTIONS – THE VERTICAL VIEW
The vertical hierarchy of the brain explains the modus operandi of how we manage our emotions, survive and accomplish goals in our daily lives. It can be categorised in 3 levels: reptilian, limbic and new mammalian brain.
The reptilian brain is responsible for our biological well being. It regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and energy burn/restoration. It operates the sympathetic system that generates action as well as flight/fight responses and parasympathetic system that helps the body heal and regenerate. Control of the reptilian brain lies with the limbic and new mammalian brain.
The limbic brain modulates fight/flight responses and generates emotions in the amygdala in addition to making memories and mental stories in the hippocampus. It operates from the unconscious and is less easily accessible for control.
The new mammalian brain is the executive control centre of the brain. This is where imagination, awareness of internal experiences and thinking reside. It allows us to set goals, makes choices, communicate with the external world, generate new learning and behaviour flexibility. This centre draws on and modulates the limbic and reptilian functions. It is best understood as our internal movie reel that is sometimes in our awareness and control but most times playing on the automatic. About 95% of our thought processing happens in the unconscious and is beyond our immediate control.
BRAIN FUNCTIONS – THE HORIZONTAL VIEW
Whilst the vertical view of the brain is based on biological functions and supervisory powers of each level, the horizontal view focuses for the most part on its information processing capacity – how the brain processes raw sensory data from the environment, processes and responds to it.
The right brain develops early in life and is related to our moment to moment experiences. It draws on the limbic brain and uses imagery, non verbal language and personal memories in order to relate to and explore life. Emotional, personal and phenomenological experiences, aesthetics and artistic sensibilities arise from right brain thinking. The left brain is the world of logic, language, relatively linear and literal thoughts. It is interested in scientific exploration built on clearly stated assumptions, observable facts and a stepwise analysis of a problem in contrast to the right brain that relies more on free flowing thought often not boxed in by prestated rationale and takes a leap of faith into intuition and big picture insights. Mathematical, scientific, business, legal and engineering minds come from this realm.
A photograph to depict a waterfall vs a paragraph written to illustrate it would be a good way to understand the right vs left brain functioning. It is important to realise that while we have a preference for one side, we do use both sides in an integrated manner. There have been interesting experiences reported in the past about how a brain that has suffered in one part sees and processes the external world. Our aim in mind training is to develop both sides of the brain and to use them in harmony in order to tap into creativity and higher level thinking.
BRAIN FUNCTIONS – THE MEMORY VIEW
The brain is a store house of memory. It is important to note that memory is not a snap shot of an event but is an electrical coded signal. It will encode our perceptions rather than actual reality. Laboratory experiments on memory show the bias and flaws in our memory circuits. All memory involves change as a result of learning. We store personal, factual and spatial memories in our explicit memory. We store habitual skills and habits, priming in our implicit memory. These form as a result of the brain’s learning process that is necessary to meet our survival needs. The brain uses a reward based learning mechanism to form habits:
Cue – Memory Response – Action – Reward
Cue = Stomach rumble, Memory Response = Hungry/ Eat, Action = Eat food , Reward = Satiation
Positive reward is coded as incentive for repeat action while negative reward is incentive for action avoidance. Repeat actions get hard wired into habits. A habit can be understood as a behaviour response that is unconscious, fast, automatic and reflexive Many of our habits are created via our early childhood experiences that create mental models of how the world works and are part of our unconscious, implicit memory. Over time they tend to become solidified into our sense of self as we start to believe we were born that way when in fact it was our brain that chose to adopt these habit as they served our survival needs. In self reflection we pull out these habit patterns of thinking, feeling and doing from the implicit or unconscious memory and explore them in the explicit or conscious space. We then chose to keep them intact or rework them and create new memories and new habits. This cognitive process is at the core of conscious behaviour change and involves deliberate thought, choice, action and effort. Effort consumes energy and time. It is often the reason why people find behaviour change hard and frustrating at times.
As we bring more of our implicit memories into explicit space and start to choose our habits as opposed to having the habits choose us, we become more intentional in our living. There is greater alignment between our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions.