Our brains are incredibly powerful computers, which have extremely weird and wonderful abilities. These abilities allow us to do extraordinary feats and the brain performs miraculous tasks on a near constant basis. These abilities can also be extremely destructive to ourselves and the relationships we have with other people.
In order to prevent these abilities from being destructive or to reverse the destruction they are causing we first need to understand the brain.
What does our brain do exactly?
Our brain is responsible for making sure we survive. We are fairly fragile creatures really. No fur to stay warm, no tough skin to resist cuts and scratches, we’re not particularly strong or fast compared to other animals. So our brain and thinking abilities are key to our survival but how many of us actually think about the way that we think?
There are two main parts of our brains that do the “thinking”. Those are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala is the “fight or flight” part of our brain which is the fast response system programmed from memories that we have created. It is the part of the brain that acts on the massive array of emotions that we feel on any given day. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that sets us apart from all other animals. This part of the brain is responsible for thinking of new ways of doing things, it’s the part of the brain that we use to set goals, its our decision making centre when there is nothing pre-programmed into the amygdala.
Because the amygdala is the fast responder it acts based on fear and other emotions that are a result of similar past experiences, so when we encounter something unexpected that we didn’t prepare for or are just caught off guard our amygdala deploys a automated response. Later when the moment has passed and the amygdala has calmed down we use the prefrontal cortex to analyze the situation and we realize that we handled the situation very poorly and this may have affected a relationship terribly.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is also responsible for creativity and innovation. It’s the part of the brain that creates stories, art and all the beauty that people create.
Why is our brain like this.
Through means of necessity humans have evolved our brains to survive. We are vulnerable creatures after all like I stated earlier. Thousands of years ago we would have travelled around in small cluster groups where we would have broken into smaller groups when the group got too big. This was pre-farming when you would have had to survive on the natural resources in your area for a time before moving on to the next area.
The amygdala was the primary part of the brain used here where we survived on instincts and developed our hierarches for survival. When you have lots of food you’re happy and content, if a predator is near by or there’s another group set up in the nearby area it’s a fight or flight moment. As we evolved the prefrontal cortex allowed us to come up with the innovation of farming the land so that we wouldn’t have to move around as much and we could live in bigger groups which provided more security from predators and other groups. With the increased food source this allowed for further evolution and the invention of better weapons for hunting and defense. The prefrontal cortex is what created societies. It created the wheel which now gives us cars. It allowed us to analyze animals and nature to understand how to fly and sail.
What else does the brain do?
Our brain does so much that we take for granted. The cerebellum is the part of our brain that remembers skills like tying our shoe laces. It’s the part of the brain that allows us to do things without thinking about it, like eating food and not missing our mouth. How difficult would life be if we had to really think about everything. Cases do happen where people temporarily forget how to do some basic skills and it’s very difficult. Imagine looking at a chair and forgetting what you are supposed to do with your body in order to sit on it, just to sit down. That’s what the cerebellum is responsible for.
The brain also gives us the amazing ability of senses. The cerebrum, which contains the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, also contains the parietal lobe which gives us the ability of sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. There are other areas of the brain that also contribute to more.
The main point I’d like to make here is that our brain is the part of us that really matters. It’s that part of us that translates what stimulations we receive from the outside world into happiness, sadness, love, joy, pain, fear and many more feelings and emotions. How we program our brain to interpret the outside world will determine how much of each of these feelings and emotions we receive.
How can we change the way that we think?
Changing how we think is like changing how your muscles work. If you want them to be faster or stronger you must train them. How we think at the moment is a result of all the life experiences that we have gone through. We put on our trousers with a particular leg first because our parent would have put that leg in first when they were dressing us as babies and toddlers. Everything that we do right down to the smallest thing is an accumulation of every tiny little thing that has happened.
The most impactful things that have caused massive shifts in our being to make us who we are, are events where emotions are involved. Emotions are amplifiers for the brain to remember something.
Unlearning things can be difficult and almost painful for the brain. It’s like when a relationship ends, you know it’s over and probably for the best but you can’t just stop loving a person without an extreme amount of emotional pain.
Likewise if you want to change the way you think there will be emotional pain at first within the brain and this is the brain resisting the change because as far as it is aware it’s been keeping you alive pretty well so far.
Think of it as wanting to run a 5 km race, but you haven’t walked more than 1000 steps in a day for the past two years. Your body will scream at you because it doesn’t know what’s happening. Changing how we think is a similar practice so if you want to change how you think start slowly.
We have different areas of the brain that perform different roles. The quick reacting amygdala, the creative prefrontal cortex, and many more areas. We know that the amygdala reacts out of emotion and previous programming. This is the area that we want to reprogram so that we can be automatically more empathetic, happy and proactive, while also being less defensive, depressed, anxious and aggressive.
In the coming series of posts on “understanding how we think so that we can change it” I will be going through more on why we think in certain ways and go through some exercises we can practice, in order to think less in ways that make us depressed and anxious in order to reprogram ourselves to be more confident, happy people who attract positive relationships where we can grow and make a positive impact on this chaotic world we live in.