I want to share with you a model of the brain that points to something very exciting.
Exciting because it shows we’re starting to understand the most complex computer on the planet, but also exciting as it also points to how we can control our own thoughts and actions to be better, happier, more effective, positive and achieve things we’ve only dreamt of. Who doesn’t want that!
There are many regions of the brain that have been studied to understand their workings; as a complex organic computer it processes information in many ways simultaneously, so it’s important to understand not just individual areas of the brain, but how different areas work with other to form a network working together. We are beginning to really understand a few of the areas involved in day to day thinking and acting. I’m going to focus on how 5 of these interact together and what we can do to influence the way we use them.
* The amygdala
* The hypothalamus
* The hippocampus
* The anterior cingulate cortex
* The left prefrontal cortex
The amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus are what I refer to as the primitive part of the brain. Parts of the brain that work together very well and efficiently. Their purpose is to keep us alive, safe and functioning, they’re an automatic network that helps us in times of danger.
The Primitive Brain:
The amygdala is a region of the brain comprised of two almond-shaped clusters of neutrons. Their primary role is in the processing of memory, decision making AND emotional responses to include fear, anxiety, aggression and sadness. It is activated through negative emotions and language, once recognising these scenarios it communicates with two other small but powerful regions of the brain; the hypothalamus and the hippocampus. The amygdala when activated is ready to act immediately and call on both these areas.
The hypothalamus is another almond sized region of the brain, but this is a single cluster that is linked to the amygdalae and has a role in controlling the endrocrine system of the body. This means it’s linked to the system that controls and regulates hormones and chemicals in the body that tell it how to respond to different situations. So when the amygdala experiences fear and determines that running from danger is the best option, it triggers the hypothalamus which initiates the process to activate the endocrine system and ensure suitable amounts of adrenaline are produced to be able to react to the situation at hand.
The hippocampus is an altogether interesting area of the brain. Again there are two of these on either side of the brain and research still continues to understand all the elements that the hippocampus is responsible for. There are primarily three areas it plays a part in; these are in the creation of new memories based on experienced events, the processing of spatial information and the third is the interesting one from this point of view and is something catchily called “approach-avoidance conflict processing”.
What’s this means is that the hippocampus is very sensitive to conflict situations such as when you’re feeling negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear or even depression. During these times, the hippocampus is able to recall memorised patterns of instances that worked under similar conditions in the past. These neural pathways are also triggered incredible quickly. You can think of these as templates, programmes or sub-routines.
These are hardwired routines that can be activate immediately when required. An example of this is an emergency stop when driving. This is a well know part of your practical test when learning drive. It is practiced on a number of occasions and from doing this, you will be able to recall the sensations and sounds associated with this, it gets hardwired into your driving behaviours and you will not forget this activity. Should you have an event that requires you to stop to avoid a risk in front of your car, this routine will kick in instinctively, you don’t think through it logically, you execute the act immediately.
Lets look at how these three areas of the brain act together in this scenario:
In the above model of the brain, the risk was processed by the amygdala and immediate action was needed. The hypothalamus ensured the adrenal glands were providing enough stimulus to be alert and react quickly and the hippocampus initiated the go-to templated response for putting your left foot firmly to the floor whilst simultaneously focussing on controlling the rapid loss of speed and scanning the environment for any further risks whilst this is carried out.
It’s great we have these templated responses… but what if we have some that work in one scenario but not in another?
Unwanted Templated Responses:
Much of our own thoughts and behaviours are triggered through this loop, particularly those where we are not feeling our best or are feeling negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, depression or even anger.
These parts of our brain serve us well in tough conditions and many other species of mammal also have these too. It is a brilliant survival mechanism and solution to living a life when it is subject to regular risks to your life. The functioning of this network is absolutely necessary for our existence, however it perhaps is not always servicing us in the way it was designed in the highly safe civilised world we currently live in as we will find out.
In modern day civilised life, we have a number of templated reponses that work well for us, routine, habits and tactics that get us through the day. Some of these can be descrived as positive and helpful, however some of these have a negative impact on our lives too.
An example of a negative template is emotional eating, this is a great example of a template or loop that doesn’t serve us well. I’ve experienced this and fallen foul (repeatedly!) of being in a low mood and eating bakery cookies and feeling much better for it. The first time I did this, the sugary sweet cookies released feel good chemicals (Seratonine/Dopamine) and the effect on the mind and body was positive. What happened the next time I was in a low mood, a trip to Sainsbury’s for more cookies! The Amygdala identified the low mood, instructed the hippocampus to commence a templated response to counter the low mood.
So if I have unwanted templated responses triggered by the amygdala, what can I do about it? Well, luckily there are other parts of the brain at play all the time too and we can engage with these also.
Part 2 goes on to explain about the Creative mind and how to access this.