Our view of the brain is largely hierarchic. It follows the kind of thinking that gives us machines and computer programs which build up in blocks. Reductionist thinking.
So the evolution of the brain is nearly always seen and described as being a hierarchic construction over time arriving at the current state.
Roughly divided into three parts still because those three parts cover coherent spheres of functionality.
The primitive brain, the emotional brain or limbic system, and the higher cortex or higher brain.
This is not a bad general structure with which to understand.
However I think that the brain along with the whole of the rest of nature and existence is holistic and systemic.
So, whilst the brain stem, the primitive brain may have evolved in order to deal with fundamental survival requirements, breathing, sexual activity etcetera, as other layers have been added to the system the interactions mean that the primitive brain becomes part of an overall gestalt of thinking and being. And in being part of a greater whole becomes more in itself. This is how we experience ourselves as a totality rather than as a mass of unrelated parts, feelings, and functions.
Nature reuses everything and I believe there is no reason to suppose that exactly the same thing does not happen with our brain.
Circuitry, capabilities and functions laid down initially for one purpose may now serve multiple functions in the larger systemic whole.
This relates deeply and powerfully to the role of the limbic system and the emotions in the human being.
As work by Antonio Damasio and others has shown people who have had lesions in the limbic area of their brain so they no longer feel, become incapable of making decisions even though all their higher brain functions are still working perfectly well.
It is the limbic system centred around the amygdala that actually gives a value to experiences, possible courses of action, and our thoughts.
We see a completely different vision of the significance of different parts of the brain and the body and the nervous system when we look at them as being part of an interwoven systemic totality.
However, the predominant hierarchical model privileges higher brain thinking and cognition as being innately and inherently superior thereby creating a conflict where the primitive and emotional brains are experienced as being something that must be eternally battled in order for supreme reason to eventually prevail.
As a result many of us ( the majority in my experience ) are not taught how to develop or value our emotional constitution. The very idea that we might need to develop and refine our emotions is at odds with the dominant modern vision of what it is to be successful as a person which can frequently involve the tacit or explicit numbing of emotion.
I suggest that the emotional brain and the higher brain are already deeply involved in and interwoven with one another in such a way that it simply isn’t possible for either of them to develop to their best level without deep reciprocity.
So the current default attitude towards our emotional being promotes unhealthy conflict instead of creative reciprocity.
That doesn’t mean that we are stuck with it though, given what we now know about the enormous plasticity of the brain and our ability to change our patterns of thinking if we wish to. A good place to start is with noticing our feelings and naming them. I would say ‘being mindful’ but that word is now associated with such a mass of different meanings and practices I find it almost unusable. Dan Siegel’s definition of mindfulness would be closest to what I mean.
Check out Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence” for a characteristically well researched view of the neuroscience and psychology work in this field.
To return to the opening theme, the holistic nature of the brain and re-use, the integration and value of the emotions in the whole is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considering how we might be able develop the systemic capabilities of our brains.
Guided by neuroscience, psychology and abductive reasoning these are some of the things we work on at Liminal Coaching, producing special focused modules on intuition, empathy and solution creation amongst others. If you’d like to know more or just chat I’m always happy to do that. Just drop me an email.