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  Jane Miller
BSc  PhD  ECPC


 
 
 
 

Articles -- Three brains

Did you know that you have three brains? Four, if you count the left and right hemisphere as separate.

The oldest part of our brain is the reticular system, sometimes called the Survival brain. It is the tiny enlargement at the top of the spinal column. It controls our instinctual reactions - e.g. jerking your hand away from a fire, dodging a projectile, and in general, the fight or flight response.

Next in terms of evolution is the Limbic system, the Emotional brain, which encircles the reticular system. This part of our brain is group oriented, likes routine, safety and comfort. These are instincts we share with animals that function as a group - e.g. wolves and monkeys. For us, as humans, it drives us to seek belongingness and safety in communities.

The most recently evolved part of the brain is the cerebral cortex, which surrounds the Limbic system. This has been called the Visioning brain because it allows us to think beyond the routine, envision new possibilities and plan ahead. This part of the brain is divided into left and right hemispheres. The left is the Conscious mind. It is characterized by linear thinking and it uses language as its medium of communication. I call the right hemisphere the Deeper Wisdom. It perceives a much bigger picture, is intuitive, holds our deepest values and uses symbols as its medium of communication.

Most of us are very familiar with the workings of our Conscious mind but we have very little awareness, understanding or appreciation of the other parts of our brains, sometimes to our detriment.

Let's look at an example of how these parts might interact. Imagine you are at work and your boss criticizes your work. Your conscious mind has a momentary thought, "Uh-oh! I'm not doing well!" That fleeting thought triggers the Emotional brain into fear of losing its safety, and that fear triggers the Survival brain to set off a number of physical reactions - tense muscles, increased blood pressure, slowed digestion, lowered immune system response. Over time, these reactions can cause headaches, susceptibility to catching colds, digestive problems, skin conditions; and if these feelings become habitual over a long period of time, it could result in a variety of illnesses such as heart disease, immune deficiency diseases, etc.

How can one prevent this type of scenario from getting out of hand? The first thing to do is notice when it starts to happen. Signs of stress vary from person to person, but some of the typical signs are muscle tension, rapid heart beat, rapid shallow breathing, tense or fluttery stomach, dry mouth.

As soon as you notice this type of stress reaction, try to catch the feeling that triggered it. Was it a threat to your security? Then find the thought that triggered that fear.

At this point, you are in touch with your Conscious mind, and you can now start to work on a strategy to address the threat. You can enlist the help of both your left and right hemispheres to figure out a strategy - i.e. your Conscious mind and your Deeper Wisdom - using the following technique.

  1. Write down the question you want answered. For example, "How can I improve my image with my boss?"

  2. Brainstorm - i.e. write down every possible idea, from sensible ones to totally outlandish ones. When you run out of ideas, push yourself to write 10 more; and then 10 more.

  3. Put down your pen, pause, take a deep breath and relax your entire body. Imagine you are inside a peaceful glowing sphere. Take your time to establish a deep feeling of calm. And when you're ready, ask "What can my Deeper Wisdom contribute to this question?" Then just wait and pay attention to whatever comes. The right hemisphere speaks in symbols, so you may get images or feelings. It may take some time to quiet your left hemisphere, so give it as much time as it needs, and notice what comes from that peaceful place. When you're done, write down whatever you noticed. Ask yourself "What insight does this contribute to the current problem?"

  4. Re-read the ideas from both parts of the exercise and integrate them to find a solution that resonates with all parts of your brain, including the Emotional brain.

Over the next few weeks, whenever you notice symptoms of stress, talk to your Emotional brain to calm it down, review your strategy to overcome the problem and make a resolution to continue to refine that strategy.

This takes some practice, but when you learn to recognize and listen to the different parts of your brain, you can start to establish more inner peace and harmony.


 
 
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