Have you ever wondered why you can be your own worst enemy in so many situations? It’s because of the way our brains are structured – they’re set up for optimal use for the time when humanity lived in caves. There’s not been enough time for evolution to catch up with modern life.
This is a short article, not a neurology degree, so we’ll stick to the basics. There are essentially 3 brains in your head or 1 brain with 3 personalities.
The first brain we think of as “the lizard brain” this is the most basic part of your brain which evolved first. Probably back when we were lizards, or fish, or something not very ape like at all. We know this because fish and lizards have similar structures in their brains.
This bit is concerned with the most basic survival skills. Fight, flight or freeze (which rarely gets mentioned but is a pretty common reaction) when afraid. It pushes us to eat, to procreate, to sleep when we need it too. It doesn’t do much else.
The second brain is your “emotional brain”. Emotions are designed to enable us to react quickly to familiar circumstances. We get happy when someone we love hugs us. We get angry when a stranger pushes us. That kind of thing.
The third and final brain is the “rational brain”. That’s the brain through which we are supposed to make our choices and interact with life.
You only have one actual brain. That means when your brain is called upon to act, it can only let one of the three brains drive. The rational brain? It’s always the last one to get a turn in the driving seat.
That means if you are in a situation which triggers a strong reaction in the lizard brain, it does the decision making for you. If, on the other hand, you are in place with a strong emotional component – the emotional brain steps up to the plate.
Your rational brain? It’s normally called upon after the fact. Once the decision is made. It doesn’t do the deciding. It makes up reasons that you did what you did. That means the bit of you that’s best designed for thinking is generally under-utilized when you need it the most.
For example, when you ask for a raise, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. Your emotional brain can jump in and do the dealing for you on automatic. Worse, if your boss scares you at all, your lizard brain can really hash things up for you.
It isn’t easy to get control of your thoughts and decision-making processes. You weren’t designed to have control of them. You were designed to deal with threats in the jungle while hunting food for your family and worrying about being eaten by tigers.
The good news is that it can be done. Meditation and mindfulness can help us, over time, recognize our lizard brain and emotional brain reactions and instead of allowing them to jump in our brain’s driving seat – we can learn to acknowledge the way we feel, and then make a decision using our rational brain anyway.
Learning to make decisions from a place of calm rather than of fear or in an emotional frenzy gives you the best opportunity to make decisions that are in your long-term interests rather than in the short-term interests of whatever you are feeling now.
This is an incredibly powerful thing to know because anyone can learn to meditate and that means anyone can learn to make better decisions despite the structure limitations of the human brain.