OUR THREE BRAINS
It has been commonly assumed that there is one brain housed within the human skull which controls all the functions that interpret and sustain life. In the 1950’s, however, neurologist, Dr. Paul MacLean, proposed that our skulls hold not one, but three brains that operate like “three interconnected biological computers…. with their own special intelligence, subjectivity, sense of time and space, and their own memory.” These three brain centers are referred to as the neocortex, the limbic brain, and the reptilian brain. And though they are all connected to each other by nerves, they seem to operate as their own brain system with distinct capacities.
It is also generally believed that the highest level of the brain, the neocortex, dominates the lower levels; but again Dr. MacLean stunned the world by showing that the limbic brain, which sits lower and more centrally within the brain mass and rules emotions, can hijack the higher mental functions when it needs to. So the pertinent question here is, “What can cause the subconscious, emotional center—or limbic brain—to hijack our conscious brain functions?” That would seem to be a potential trouble-maker. Let’s quickly review the “jobs” of our three brains as we begin to answer this burning question.
The oldest brain—the reptilian brain—is made up of the brain stem and the cerebellum. The object of the reptilian brain is our survival. Fight or flight responses live here and control muscles, balance, and autonomic functions such as breathing or the rate at which the heart beats. It is rigid, obsessive, compulsive, ritualistic and paranoid. We will find our generational issues and memories housed here, and we will repeat the same behaviors over and over again, never learning from past mistakes.
The limbic brain lies nestled in the heart of the brain mass and is concerned with emotion, attention, emotionally charged memories, instincts, feeding, fighting and sexual behavior. This is the system where all data is deemed agreeable or disagreeable, with a propensity to avoid pain and to repeat that which is determined pleasurable. It is the seat of decision as to whether we feel positive or negative about something, what will get our attention, unpredictability, and creative behaviors. For fun and playfulness in life’s daily unfolding, this brain will be referenced. Indeed, all our value judgments live here—not in our higher neocortex! This is crucial to understand.
The neocortex, or higher brain, comprises almost two-thirds of the total brain mass and actually does a fraction of all the data processing that occurs. This is the part of the brain that distinguishes us from the other animals in the animal kingdom. This is where spatial, abstract, musical, artistic, linear, rational, and verbal skills are born and regulated. This is the home of intellectualizing, analyzing and processing received information.
Here is why all of this matters. Our five senses and skin receptors are constantly gathering information that is continually being transferred to the three brains through protein receptors. All information is first sent to the reptilian brain where it is assessed for survival threats, evoking the appropriate responses if deemed an enemy to the body system. The reptilian brain is the link to our physical body. The information is then passed along to the limbic brain where there is an immediate and subconscious value judgment made. A short term memory is created and emotion is assigned. Hormones are deployed to carry out the judgment within the body, mind, and spirit systems. When an experience is perceived as nonthreatening, it will be sent to the neocortex for processing, which can happen within seconds and minutes.
Here’s the caveat. If the limbic brain stamps any of our continual stream of incoming data with “threatening,” “traumatic” or “painful,” it can then act as a stop-gap and “hijack” the natural progression of that information to the processing centers of the neocortex. This is done as a protection against overwhelming the conscious mind’s ability to adapt or cope. This assessment is automatic and subconscious, and takes place within a millisecond of time. When that subconscious memory is thereafter triggered by any one of the senses, a signal is then sent directly from the limbic brain, where it has been stored, back to the reptilian brain for reassessment of threat. The triggered trauma will precipitate the body to begin responding as if it were experiencing the trauma for the first time. But the reptilian brain can only function as a survival mechanism of the physiological body. Subconsciously, the reptilian brain keeps the body functioning and behaving in a maladaptive way, creating a holding pattern of imbalance between the mind (neocortex) and the body (reptilian brain). On a conscious level, one never learns from previous experiences because of the reptilian response that the limbic brain is triggering over and over again. It is crucial to understand that the body won’t break the holding pattern of reacting in a survival mode until the trauma has been processed in the neocortex.
Here is the good news! Through the application of Kinesiology and the monitoring of a muscle, one can gain access to the subconscious reptilian brain—which is controlling that muscle—and the subconscious limbic brain where the traumas, threats, and pains of our lives are stored. Stressors are gathered during the course of a balance, and cleared of the accumulated stress. The miracle can then occur. The limbic brain is able to remove the “threat” judgment and send the signal on to the neocortex as it is meant to be. The neocortex facilitates the processing of the short-term memory into a long-term memory, lessons are extrapolated, and the ability to stay in present-time consciousness is attained.
Ultimately, our e-motions (“e”nergy in “motion”) need to progress through our three brains in order to experience the unification of our bodies, minds and spirits in optimal function. This allows our thoughts, feelings and beliefs to be properly propelled along the line of filtering to the processing centers of the neocortex for filing of lessons learned and understandings gained. It is the innate genius of our bodies to know how to do this beautifully with proper support given. If you have recognized any holding patterns in your life that keep resurfacing, give me a call at 801.599.2253 and clear them, allowing your body, mind and spirit the option of returning to health and wholeness.