A Bit of Brain Science
Why is it important for us to know how our brain works? What is “mind” and how does knowing how it works optimize our relationship with ourselves, and with others? Learning about our brain and our mind supports us in making decisions toward healing and healthy relationships (Siegel, 1999).
Let’s start with the brain: you can think of your brain as operating on three distinct levels, with discrete functions. The very root of your brain sits on top of the spinal column. It is the center of regulating physical rhythms: breathing, heart beating, digestion and other functions. It is sometimes called the reptilian part of the brain (Siegel, 2011; Van der kolk, 2014; Lewis 2000).
Nestled in the middle of your brain is the limbic system. Here your amygdala and other important systems are in place to keep you safe. This is where the “flight, fight, or freeze” response can be activated. The amygdala is especially noted because this part of your brain is the one that makes meaning out of data it collects: it makes associations with what has come before with what is happening now (Badenoch, 2008, Van der Kolk, 2014, Siegel 2011). These associations can have us “over react” in ways that we don’t clearly understand. These activated states are called by various names: triggered, activated, flashbacks, re-stimulated. For the purposes of this book, the word “activated” will be used to indicate a state where current circumstances reminds a person of something that happened before, usually something unpleasant or threatening. The memory might be accessed explicitly; meaning a specific memory can be accessed that explains the activated state; or memories might be implicit: this means a person “remembers” on a subconscious level, but nevertheless is responding to events in the past (Siegel, 1999). An example might be experiences with dogs. Perhaps when some people see a dog they are reminded (either implicitly or explicitly) of the family dog who was always friendly and nice; it’s easy under these circumstances to consider the dogs as wonderful creatures and worthy of friendship. A different person might have been bitten by a dog as a young adult, and still feels a little afraid of most dogs because of the memory of the pain that fear. Yet another person may have been frightened by a dog as a very young child, and decides they do not like dogs, but they are not making the decision based on explicit memory, but an implicit one that still affects their relationships to dogs in their environment.
Have you ever wondered why people seem to focus on the negative aspect of life? Our psychological and neurological systems have evolved over time to pay close attention to threatening things: the beautiful flower may be pleasant to look at, but that rustling in the bushes might be a wild animal about to attack. Therefore it takes special effort to pay attention to things that help us build resiliency and resources so that when we are activated, we can choose to respond in a calm, centered, and relaxed manner. When we are calm and relaxed, our executive functioning can be accessed. Remember that thousands of years of evolution have contributed to a brain that knows how to survive, even if it’s at the cost of thinking clearly. In fact “thinking clearly” is actually quite costly, biologically speaking, which is why the amygdala and other systems can take priority over your executive functioning.
This leads us to discussion of the third part of our brain: the neo cortex. Evolutionarily speaking, it is last to come into existence, and the first to go “off line” in threatening situations. The mammalian brain takes over, pushing forward and cutting the “expensive” neo cortex off line as it struggles for survival. Unfortunately, we are sometimes struggling for survival in situations that are not life threatening. Can you think of some examples in your own life?
There are ways to encourage your executive functioning to come back “online” even during stressful times. One of the most effective ways is to be curious about what is happening inside you or in your environment. Finding ways to connect with other people is helpful, too. Explore this website and you will find others ways of reconnecting with yourself and allowing you to access all of your brain, not just the parts concerned with survival. Check out the article titled Grounding Techniques under the Self-care tab for some helpful hints when you are struggling. Attend to your relationship with yourself; to paraphrase Dan Siegel, when you are in a fight with yourself, nobody wins: put on your own air mask first–your relationship with yourself is the most important!