Updated: Feb 19
In our culture, it is often viewed that change is simply a matter of the conscious application of willpower. This view can make it hard for people who need or want to change, as it can add a layer of negative self-judgement around not being able to control their lives, as apparently others do.
In our achievement-oriented society where skills in such control are considered essential the inability to manage all aspects of our lives is often seen variously as weakness, a lack of maturity, or a shortfall of skills of some kind. Let’s look at how the brain works in broad terms to see if those generalisations hold up.
The setup of the brain
Recently, I read the brain described as “a kludge of different operating systems”, which I think is a good way to view the brain. The brain is exquisitely complex and way more so than the following conceptual model, but what the following model portrays is a good way in which to understand some of the brain’s manner of operation.
Effectively, we have three brains stacked on top of each other:
• Reptilian brain, the first of our brains to develop (literally think reptiles) → Basics – breathing, metabolism, motor functions, and our fight-or-flight instincts
• Limbic or Mammal brain, evolved next and grows next (think cats and dogs) → Emotions, memory
• Cortex especially the Neocortex the recently evolved (new) brain that differentiates us as human → Rational thinking
Notice that only one of those brains had any reasoning ability, we’ll come back to that.
Running with this model, each of us has all three brains constantly running inside our heads. Each brain has its own way of doing things, they don’t march to the same tune but there is communication between the brains, as well as, a hierarchy of process.
So, who’s in charge?
We would like to think it is the rational brain, and much is directed by this brain. However, leading neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, and neuropsychologists like, Rick Hanson and Oliver Turnbull, tell us that our minds are motivated primarily by emotions. Not only that, but all of our emotional conditioning is essentially unconscious, that is, outside of our deliberate recall and automatic with the strongest influences being the older basic emotions, like fear, rage, lust, love and grief.
No logic involved
Our emotions do not use logic, meaning, they cannot reason. The emotional brain doesn’t care about true or false options; emotions don’t even understand the question it is not how they operate. What this means is that trying to argue with your emotions is the equivalent of arguing with a radio. Signals keep coming from the radio, but they can’t engage our logically driven thought processes even though we would like them to, because we may
really do want things to be different e.g., we may not want the particular feelings/emotions currently being fed up to us.
A typical process
We filter information through our limbic brain, as we are constantly assessing “what this or that means to me” and this interpretation is made against our previous knowledge and emotional conditioning. This means that by the time the conscious brain gets the new data it is always dealing with the emotionally tinged material. Damasio has evidenced that emotions marinate everything we think including the most seemingly objective driven aspects of rational thought. Once screened for danger, content is fed up the line and the new brain is engaged. If the subject in question is, for example, just mildly scary then the power of the reasoning “human” brain can manage the situation and make all those sensible adjustments we humans are able to make.
But what happens when we get sufficiently frightened?
If, however, the information at hand has too much emotional weight (too scary) the human brain rather than being invoked is sidelined and control is handed to our reptilian brain with its focus on more primitive survivalist’s tendencies.
For example, if we see a deadly snake we wouldn’t stand around pondering its toxicity we would be moving, and fast, to avert danger. There would be no thinking involved. In fact, we would not “think” again until we felt safe, that is, the emotions had settled into an unthreatened state again. The same sort of process kicks in for all threats deemed sufficiently threatening and they do not have to be real only perceived as a threat.
Emotions do not care that we have a higher order (human) brain if it gets too threatening the emotional brain takes charge and does what it believes is needed if matters become too threatening. Nor does it matter that the action adopted make any sense at all; it only matters that at some point in our lives we got scared, hurt etc and learned a strategy to escape or avoid that hurt. Some of our danger responses are deeply instinctual particularly regarding external threats (e.g. snake) but others are learned along the way as internal (psychological) threats usually earlier on in our lives and they also become equally automatic responses to danger.
In a nutshell, we are driven by emotional conditioning that when sufficiently triggered (threatened) takes us into automatic mode before we know it and without our conscious permission to do so. We often do not know what triggers us or drives us as this part of the brain is more formed by impressions rather than thinking, amongst them what constitutes a threat.
Giving ourselves a “good talking to” with well thought out arguments and rationalisations about what should be and why it must be different in the future doesn’t always carry the day, particularly not so when emotions are triggered, reach a tipping point and take control away from the new brain.
Being kind to ourselves
In circumstances involving the human brain being sidelined (like seeing a deadly snake), it’s a waste of time berating ourselves and telling ourselves how it should be if things don’t go as we would like. More than that, it’s very unkind to ourselves because we are essentially being hard on ourselves for not being able to control our reptile brain (iguana) with words or convince our emotional brain (cat) of for instance the merits of chess. Unfortunately, we often punish ourselves for what we don’t control, because part of us (and perhaps some of those outside us) thinks we should. The truth is we had precious little say over our early emotional programming and may even now be trying to work through the way in which it plays out in our lives. To be clear, I am not saying we are not responsible for ourselves, we are. As Gabor Mate says, “There are many ways to create change, but the first is to be completely accountable for our own lives.” However, we learn to take what we have as a given and work through it to become who we want to be.
We can’t outthink our emotions the brain’s various operating systems are not compatible in that way – any more than you can tell yourself that you aren’t frightened once you are. The brain has been designed first and foremost to help us survive and our emotions can help us accomplish this goal, but if emotions overpower us this can lead to maladaptive behaviours, depression and anxiety related conditions.
Our mental world is a constant dance between thoughts and feelings, which determines to a large extent how we behave. Much of this behaviour can be dictated by emotions that we often don’t even realise get triggered let alone notice the triggers.
So much for the idea that we can just think it and change will ensue, that is, my reasoning brain can come up with a word soup that should cover it and it will be done. Not quite true; not always the case. Logic can appease our human minds need for understanding but it doesn’t necessarily help us understand our emotional minds, which actually have the job of running the show in a jam, i.e., when we feel threatened either by a threat from outside or a perceived psychological threat inside.
How can we change?
The good news is that our brains are designed to change – that’s what they do. Neuroscientists have a name for this: neuroplasticity (plastic brain). Our brain responds to what we do. In other words, the brain is a programmable device and we can program it to respond differently to stimuli by teaching it to do so. It is similar to anything else we learn, for instance, learning guitar, and like learning guitar despite our desire or need for an instant fix to our problems of mind it takes time. The brain changes because of what we do. The guitar skills I need are not going to come from a discussion about guitar they are going to come from experiencing playing guitar.
Feelings need to be felt
Likewise, the changes we seek for our mental health do not flow easily from reading a book or going to a seminar. Deeper change, real change only starts when I am willing to feel my
feelings not talk about my feelings. Our feelings operate in a different reality than our rational thoughts and we need to understand and relate to these feelings and not try and outthink them, failure to do so means unrecognised/unexpressed feelings will keep influencing our lives in the same way.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else “thinks”, and we have seen it doesn’t matter a lot what we think at times either, especially those times that involve fearful memories and situations. Someone’s else’s set of generic rules for you can’t actually make you “feel” better however derived or well-intended, because they are not you and because feeling itself is outside the realms of the rational mind. Only I can feel my feelings and in doing so free myself from their influence.