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How does my brain work?

Your Brain basically consists of 3 layers. The reptilian brain, the limbic system and the neo-cortex. We move up and down between the 3 parts of our brain, depending on the situation or environment we find ourselves in at a certain point.

The deepest layer of the brain is called the Reptile brain - It is what we have in common with reptiles like crocodiles, lizards etc. It is the first part of the brain to develop when we develop as a foetus and it is the last part of the brain to die when we die. It is also called our survival brain because it regulates survival functions. No higher order thinking takes place in this part of our brain.

The next layer is the Limbic system, or the Mammalian brain - We have this in common with mammals. This is also referred to as our "feeling brain" or our "emotional brain". The thoughts that we have that relates to this area of our brain are emotionally loaded and not always logic or rational. When we are active in this part of our brain, we tend to overreact to things and view things personally and subjectively. We tend to disengage our "thinking brain" and our behaviour displays that in terms of crying, yelling, whining, aggression etc.

The third layer is the neocortex and it is also referred to as our "thinking brain" or "smart brain". Higher order cognitive functions are executed in this part of our brain. The next picture indicates the different aspects that the neocortex is involved in:

These aspects are mainly happening in the front part of the neocortex, called the pre-frontal cortex. This is what distinguishes humans from animals. When we engage this part of our brain, we are able to plan, think logically, make smart decisions, be creative, analytical, control impulses, show willpower, empathy and interact with others and many more.

When we are experiencing stress, the brain goes into a protective state - a survival state and therefore needs the individual to act in a more instinctive way to the world. For example, when someone sees a lion and engages their thinking brain to reason about the animals potential threat level and spends time to evaluate their options in terms of response, it might be too late... One would have a much greater chance at survival if instinct would kick in (without thinking and delaying the reaction) and to get out of harms way as soon as possible. The thinking brain can cost you valuable time - that you might not have!

In day-to-day situations, when we experience stress (not necessarily a lion...), our brain reacts in the same way and we seem to disengage out thinking brain and react emotionally to situations. Therefore, we often make decisions that are not well thought through (as it is the thinking brain's job to think through things). We need to be able to identify "where we are at" in our brain and when we realise we are not engaging our thinking brain, we need to calm down before we respond. There are different techniques to help us with that - but for now, we need to know that we cannot make rational decisions or say and do rational things if we are not in the rational part of our brain.


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