Our brain is about 2 million years old. The modern human brain is at least 40,000 years old, and it hasn’t changed too much since then.
But obviously, it has many built-in principles and functions for surviving such a long time. It is essential to know about those principles because it helps you understand several reactions and behaviors of yourself and others.
We can subclassify our brain roughly into two parts, the old and the new brain. The older part is the so-called limbic system. It consists of the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus that regulate our emotional responses and includes the brain stem responsible for our fight-or-flight response.
The newer part of our brain is the cerebral cortex which is located in the frontal lobe. Here problem-solving, logic, reasoning, language, comprehension, and also voluntary behavior is happening. Our values, significant parts of our personality, and social skills are located in that part of the brain.
An interesting fact is that the limbic system can override the cerebral cortex. Just by knowing this, you can explain many human behavior patterns – reactions of others and your ones. E.g., you are walking along a street and all of a sudden a car out of control is heading into your direction. Within split seconds, the old part of your brain takes over. You are on auto-pilot and jump or run to escape that situation. Obviously, this behavior makes much sense. You should not lose any time with reasoning and logical analysis of the situation in your newer part of the brain in such a case.
But sometimes, that function also has its downsides. In conflicts with other people, the fight-or-flight mode could kick in as well. The old, reptile brain is talking now and lets some people say or yell things they would never say in a more calmed down atmosphere. Some people could even show signs of aggression and violence in such a scenario.
I’ll write about breathing techniques that help you exiting such a situation quite quickly in one of the following posts.
For me, it helps already a lot to know about this brain behavior. In conflict situations, I simply do not want my limbic system to take over. My cerebral cortex could win by reasoning first and prevent the fight-or-flight mode. Just try consciously to calm down before entering this state.
For me, people who yell around are victims of their old brains. They lost control to some degree. It is just my opinion, but I’m convinced that mentally weak persons are more yelling than stronger ones.
You have an edge now in such situations. You know what is going on, which is really powerful because it enables you to have complete control over the situation.
If you are raising kids, knowing this will also help you tremendously.
The situation is slightly different for kids: The cerebral cortex is developing later, which means small kids don’t have that control loop for their limbic system. For example, your kid asks you for a jelly sandwich. You put some strawberry jelly on bread and give it to your child. Out of nowhere, your kid gets angry and screams around, lying on the floor. You try to ask: “What’s wrong? What do you want? Have I done something wrong?”. But your child can’t hear you anymore. The limbic system took over immediately when some bad feelings arose because you had picked the wrong jelly.
Now, if you become angry and get louder, this makes the situation even worse.
Talking to your kid in such a situation is almost meaningless. The kid’s processing of speech is blocked in that situation. But you can apply stimuli to the limbic system of your child. Just caress, or hug your kid, put a slight smile on your face, and talk with a calm voice.
The kid’s limbic system recognizes these inputs and will give an “all-clear,” usually shortly after.
Trust me; this helped me in a lot of situations.
Also, later in ground school, kids showed egoistic behavior in several studies, even when it was not beneficial for them. That behavior is still coming from the not yet fully developed prefrontal cortex. The reptile brain just wants to survive and takes everything that it can get immediately to ensure this. But there is no strategic thinking involved.
E.g., give a kid a piece of chocolate. Tell it that if it doesn’t eat the chocolate within the next 10 minutes, it will get double the amount. Then leave it alone.
I think you already know how that experiment will turn out in most scenarios.
If you want to get more background knowledge about how your kid’s brain works and how to get through the terrible twos, I can highly recommend the following book (this is the German version I read some time ago, an English version should be available soon):
But now, back to the more developed, adult brain. We saw the benefits of having the limbic system and how it could help us to survive by responding immediately to our senses. We know the prefrontal cortex’s services, which help us process language, logical thinking, reasoning, and much more.
Still, there are situations where that system is hindering our best possible performance:
Let’s take one of our main topics of this blog, learning. Imagine you try to learn a complex topic for school or your job. Suddenly you hear some loud noise outside. The limbic system kicks in, and your concentration is gone immediately. Noise-canceling headphones or just playing some background music could do a great job to block out noises, calm your brain down and keep you focused.
Another example would be the smell of food. Smells trigger immediate brain reactions and could bring up specific memories like, e.g., from your childhood when you experienced that smell for the first time.
To come to a point with this, try to establish an environment where you can block some of your senses to stay as focused as possible while learning.
Another example of where your limbic system could be hindering is public speaking. Some people are frightened by this situation. With fear, you activate your old brain, which takes over control and blocks the prefrontal cortex. You don’t want that to happen. You need a fully working cortex in such a situation to give a great speech.
To avoid that pitfall, you have to calm down. I’ll go into the different techniques in detail in a later blog post.
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