Archive for March, 2010

How the anatomy of the brain influences our behaviour

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Do you control everything you do, or are there instincts that act faster than the shadow of your consciousness? With this thought in mind we went down to a course in neurosciences at Elan Vital, given by the Institute of NeuroCognitivism.

Neuroscientists research the workings of the brain, and its effect on our conscious and unconscious behaviour. Different areas of the brain influence us and can come into conflict with each other. During the course in neuroscience we followed, four areas were identified that are instrumental in our daily dealing: the reptilian brain, the paleolithical brain, the neolithical brain and the prefrontal area.

The reptilian brain

This is the seat of our survival instincts. The animal state full of adrenaline you feel when your life is in danger. There are three typical reactions to this kind of stress: flight, fight or inhibition. Most people have a general tendency towards one of these reactions, a typical way of reaction to stress.

Flight is when you run away from a situation, or you try to deny it by looking away.

Anatomy of the Brain - Flight

Fight is trying to dominate to get your way even when you’re wrong or in a losing position.

Anatomy of the Brain - Fight

Inhibition is giving up, curling into a defeated little ball and playing dead.

Anatomy of the Brain - Inhibition

The reptilian brain isn’s only activated when our life is in danger. It can also happen when we’re faced with a situation to which we have no set answer. Like talking to a complete stranger, or facing a difficult new problem at work.

As long as we don’t have a sure strategy to deal with a certain situation, this part can become activated as a kind of alarm bell. Most of the time however, the reptilian brain isn’t the part you want to be in when faced with stress.

The paleolitical brain

The paleolithical brain

The paleolithical brain

Every time you come into a new social situation or group, your position is decided. It happens nearly instantly and through the instinctive messages being sent out by your paleolithical brain. This part of your brains works according to two main axes: dominant-submissive and marginal-axial.

The first axis, dominance-submission decides how domineering or submissive someone generally is. It’s also relative: you can be dominant in one situation and submit to someone else’s authority in another – depending on the people you come into contact with.

The paleolithical brain decides natural dominance and submission, not formal hierarchy. So even when someone is a manager, it could be that their subordinates are really the dominant ones. Of course, a naturally more dominant person will be more prone to become a manager.

People often force themselves to be more dominant, as this is what our culture looks up to. This can lead to a counterreaction of the paleolithical brain towards the submissive in other areas of life. A telling example is that of extremely powerful men becoming SM slaves in their spare time.

The marginal-axial axis indicates how connected someone feels to others, and the world as a whole. Marginals tend to be wary and place themselves outside of groups, while axials love being in company and trust in the energy of the world to take care of them.

This instinctive positioning of the paleolithical brain is more or less fixed. It can change, but not much. With effort, someone can shift their general position on these axes. What often happens is that people use the neolithical part of their brain to bypass the paleolithical position they have in a group. A good example is someone who takes class to speak in front of large groups.

The neolithical brain

The neolithical brain

The neolithical brain

This is the part of the brain we could call our consciousness. It’s where all our habits, convictions, strategies, memories etcetera are placed. It’s everything we rationally know and are able to do. It’s the part we use to perform routine tasks like brushing our teeth, driving, talking… and also to solve problems that we have procedures for.

This part of us likes habits. It wants to see everything solved according to strict rules, thinking within the box. Of course, life constantly throws up situations the neolithical can’t answer. In this situation, a panic reaction can start that takes us all the way down to our reptilian brain. Or we can use the prefrontal part of our brain to come up with a creative new answer.

The prefrontal area

The prefrontal area

The prefrontal area

This is the creative, higher part of our brain. This is where new links are laid, where there is overview and inner peace. It’s what artists call their muse, the state of ‘flow’ described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Our culture is very much centered on the rational, the neolithical. Work life is often geared towards the repetition of known tasks, meaning that our contact with the prefrontal is only sporadic. That also means that in new situations, we go reptilian stress reaction more than we go prefrontal problem solving.

There are different ways to strengthen the prefrontal. The main way is to spend as much time there as possible: by seeking peace from routine thinking and feeling, by meditating. Another good one is to put yourself in new positions where you’re forced to come up with new solutions. Or through creative expression: theatre, painting, singing, writing… and laughing!

Prefrontal Brain

How the areas are linked to each other

You could see the progression from reptilian to prefrontal brain area as going from lower to higher; from animal instinct to higher self. Every higher part of the brain sees the parts below and can use their resources to make decisions. So the neolithical can become aware of paleolithical tendencies and correct with new strategies of dealing with group dynamics. The prefrontal can take in account all neolithical experience and still come up with a completely original solution.

This is why we advocate developing the prefrontal as much as possible; it’s where you have the most peace and possibilities!

Link of neurosciences with other theories and practices

Neuroscience offers a scientific link between well-known concepts from psychology and coaching. For example, the progression from reptilian to prefrontal is akin to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid: from survival to self-actualisation.

For the first time, biological science enters psychology and the study of the human mind. It carries enormous potential for the development of psychology. It also holds much promise for the growth of the coaching practice as an effective way to learn to deal with our brain and become more effective in our lives.

At YourCoach, we can now offer you coaching according to the principles of neuroscience. Do you find yourself ending up in reptilian stress reaction where you’re unable to formulate effective solutions to your problems? Would you like to use your prefrontal more and change certain patterns in your life? Would you like to bring more balance in your dominance-submission? Contact us for more information about coaching at YourCoach!