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The Tricky Brain

The key to understanding and relieving our distress is becoming aware of the nature of our ‘tricky’ human brain and how it has evolved to keep us safe, but can also keep us stuck and in turn prolong our suffering. The human brain has evolved over literally millions of years, and contains what we can think of as an ‘old brain’ that is ancient, and a ‘new’ brain which evolved more recently.

Our ‘old’ brain is over 200 million years old and contains structures that are shared with other animals such as reptiles. So let’s think about what the average crocodile is interested in; food, resources, reproduction and ultimately, staying alive. They are furnished with the ability to feel basic emotional states leading to behavioural responses (such as fight or flight) which help them to achieve their goals. Because of the preoccupation with survival, the old brain is constantly looking out for threats, real or imagined. Check out our blog ‘Wired to Survive not Thrive’ to understand more about this.

But about two million years ago the human brain evolved a number of abilities for thinking in new ways. We refer to these new abilities as being part of our ‘new brain’, which is particularly linked to the pre-frontal cortex. These new abilities include being able to imagine, plan, mentalize, reflect and self-monitor. Our new brain can essentially time travel by worrying about what might happen in the future, and ruminating about what happened in the past.

It is wonderful that we have these new brains that have evolved fantastic abilities that have helped us to advance as a species (for example, creativity, planning, imagination). However, these same abilities that helped us to explore space and cure medical illness, can also drive a lot of our suffering. The reason for this is that the old and new brain can sometimes get into a tussle, (even though they get on pretty well most of the time). This is in part because there are bundles of neurons that carry information throughout the body that flow up from old to new, and also down from new to old. So, although it’s great that we can think back in time and imagine the future, sometimes, the new brain capabilities can be hijacked and directed by old brain passions, desires, threats and fears. Our planning, reasoning, imagining, and ruminating can be directed by the emotions and motives of the old brain. Rather than using our thinking and attention to control unpleasant emotions or help us stimulate positive emotions, the old brain pulls us in the direction of threat-based anxiety and anger, and survival becomes the focus of our thinking, feeling and imagining.

Let’s look at an example to highlight how these old brain and new brain loops maintain our suffering. I’m sure many of us like wildlife documentaries. Let’s imagine a zebra has been attacked by a tiger in the Serengeti but has somehow managed to escape. Once the tiger and therefore the threat has gone, what do we normally observe the zebra to do? Do you think the Zebra is stood there thinking “oh gosh, did I run fast enough?… I’m such an idiot, I should have known he would be there… I hope no one saw that, I really hate the way I run… What if he comes back again tomorrow?”. No. Because they don’t have our time travelling new brain, they quickly engage themselves back into the present moment where there is no threat, returning to a baseline state and go back to grazing as if nothing had happened.

But let’s imagine if the same thing happened to a human being, and they narrowly escaped attack from a predator. What would happen after the tiger left, would that person just go about their day as though nothing had happened? Although their level of fear may initially start to decline, threat based emotions would quickly become retriggered because of the tricky human brain. This person might start to think back about what just happened, they may start to imagine what could have happened, they might criticise themselves for how they reacted during the attack. All of these new brain processes each time triggering old brain emotions, and keeping the level of threat high.

So as you can see we unintentionally perpetuate our sense of threat by re-triggering difficult and unpleasant threat based emotions. The good news is that we can learn to stop and notice this process by which our emotions and motivations have taken hold of our thinking. We can learn to stand back and become more observant of our brains built in desires and emotions that flow through us, and then make a decision as to whether we want to go with that flow or maybe change the direction of our thinking or attention.