How to Access Resourceful States

The Toddler Brain vs The Adult Brain

I absolutely loved Steve Stonsy’s book Soar Above in which he simplifies our social behavior to two very simple polarities: a reactive, Toddler Brain, and a responsive, Adult Brain. It’s always handy to have a model with which you can objectify and categorize your undesirable (and desirable) behaviors, thoughts patterns and emotions. It’s a way for us to keep an internal tab on what we’re doing, while we seek to fine-tune ourselves, build our character, learn new things, and unlearn old habits.

Stonsy’s approach is very similar to a Cognitive Behavioral model much more widely known in the Francophone world called the Neuro-Cognitive Behavioral Approach (NCBA). In this model, behavioral characteristics are assigned to four primary areas of our brain, each having appeared along an evolutionary timeline from the oldest and simplest to the newest and most complex.

The oldest of these four brain regions, obviously, is our survival brain which is called our limbic or reptilian brain. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for detecting threats and reacting instinctively to them, either by fleeing, freezing or fighting. In this mode we don’t have or even need time to think or reflect. Naturally, this reactionary center is the Toddler Brain’s emotional throne and we could be over-relying on it in our dealings with others, potentially creating a lot of unnecessary drama. We know we’re being “limbic,” when we are constantly reacting to the world, when we have a feeling that people and events are happening to us. It’s a somewhat anxious state to be in, or at the best of times, a pleasure-seeking state that doesn’t think much about future consequences. Does that sound familiar?

Anyway, circling back to Stonsy, Toddlers, he explains in his book, react identically to perceived and actual threats. And I’ve noticed that they also have a tendency to throw tantrums when events in the external world fail to meet their expectations. There’s something inherently egocentric about toddlerhood. Nothing wrong with that if you are a toddler, but it could be potentially ruinous if we don’t recognize the pattern in our adult selves! We retain those early patterns of expectation-formation and reaction to disappointment well into adulthood, except now they’re disguised under swathes of logical reasoning that works in overdrive to reassure us that “we’re right, and they deserved it!” If we’re not aware of the basis for our emotional reactions, we could be going through the world making decisions and taking actions based on ways of being we learned and internalized when we were toddlers.

The Adult Brain, Stonsy says, processes difficult situations (and emotions) within parts of the human brain that evolved much later. The Frontal Cortex, the part of the brain behind our forehead, is that part we engage when we are in a proactive process of adapting, responding and innovating a solution to a problem or challenge. Rather than reacting to a situation, which is the domain of the limbic system (RUN! FIGHT! HIDE!), it takes on the explorative effort to innovate a solution (Hmm, what are my options here? Why is this happening? How can I resolve this situation?). Stonsy teaches a number of techniques to train us to resort to our adult brain to fashion a response to circumstances and people in our lives, rather than to live in a state of perpetual reactivity, deprived of a conscious choice. This ties into the work of Carol Dweck’s “Brainology,” for children. Dweck teaches children to access the “adult brain,” much sooner. To learn more, you’ll want to read “Growth Mindset Vs Fixed Mindset.”

Samar Habib is a writer, researcher and educator who lives in California. She’s passionate about reducing suffering and increasing compassion in the world, one mind at a time. When she’s not busy figuring out how things work and how they could be working better, you’ll find her sharing what she’s learned in seminars, public lectures, books and online courses. In fact, you can check out more of her lifestyle management hacks by taking her course Quantum Mind: Stop Suffering and Take Back Your Life. You can get in touch with her on drsamarhabib [at] email [dot] com

Originally published at

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