Inner Workings of the Human Brain 101
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that man can alter his life simply by altering his attitude of mind.” ~William James
Please don’t take one look at the title and run away! It’s really pretty simple to understand, I promise! You don’t need to know what’s under the hood of your car or lurking inside your computer to use it, right? Same thing here. A little basic understanding will help you learn how very simple it is to use that brain of yours to reframe your thinking! Notice that I did not say easy because it does require some effort, but the way it works really is simple. Values, commitments, goal setting and actions will all make a lot more sense once you understand a few basic things about the way our brain works.
I wrote last time that humans have an instinctive need to label, sort and question everything in their existence. We do this as a matter of self-preservation and survival. When finding food and staying alive were man’s most pressing matters, we were able to rely on these extremely fundamental thought processes.
You have heard of “fight or flight” responses, and it’s what we feel any time we perceive our safety is threatened. Instantly, our brain floods our body with a cocktail of chemicals to prepare us for either response. That part of our brains hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. The primitive part of our brain still exists and functions just the same as it did when humans first discovered fire. Immediately, blood rushes to our body’s core. It creates that sickening “rush” or “wave” that jolts through us when we’re frightened or deeply ashamed. That’s why we call it a “gut reaction” or say “I feel it in my guts”.
That primal part of our brain is called the limbic region. It’s deep in the center of our skull. For simplicity, we’ll call that entire region our “animal brain”. You’ll sometimes hear it referred to as our “lizard brain.” It’s in charge of communicating the very most in-the-moment information to us. When we’re hungry, we’re sent a signal to eat. When we’re hot, it makes us sweat and when we get cold it makes us shiver. Both responses are an attempt to correct our body temperature. Our most basic bodily functions are controlled from this center. It’s also the seat of our emotions, raw and unfiltered. It causes us to react in hundredths of seconds to any sense of being threatened. Our “animal brain” is our resident “wild child” and is as alive and well in us as it was in cavemen, despite how much our circumstances have changed.
Another part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex. It literally sits right on top of the “animal brain.” It fills the top part of our skull from in front of our ears to our forehead. We’ll call this region our “human brain.” This area is much more highly developed than the limbic region and it happened as part of the evolutionary process of modern humans. It receives and processes all the signals from other parts of the brain, including our “animal brain” and serves to regulate our decisions and our behavior.
It works to control those “gut reactions” by serving as a kind of filter, where it sorts out conflicting thoughts and distinguishes between good and bad. The choices we make are processed through this “human mind” as it sifts through all our cumulative experiences and evaluates the consequences of what we do. The prefrontal cortex is constantly scanning and monitoring the input it receives and this all happens in tiny fractions of a second! I told you that you’re a miracle!
The prefrontal cortex or “human brain” has an “executive” function as our internal problem solver, judge, pathfinder and captain. It’s the watchdog of our responses and keeps us working to remain centered and reach our goals. It keeps us behaving in ways that are socially acceptable and serves as the key to how our unique personalities are expressed. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as our “higher consciousness.”
But here is the most important thing to know; that part is programmable! That prefrontal cortex, our “human brain”, is the seat of and the keeper of all the messages we send it whether positive or negative. And we are in the driver’s seat my friend! Quite literally we can rewrite the script and control our “human brain” which then manages our “animal brain”. We do this by continually instructing it in the choices we make based on our worthy values.
Here’s the exciting part! It isn’t something you need to concentrate on real intensely and it isn’t hard work like doing hundreds of sit-ups to flatten your belly. No, it’s really a very simple matter of knowing your “why”, your most cherished and worthy values, and using that to guide you in making the tiny little choices you make all day long!
In the words of author Jeff Olson, “It’s easy to do and it’s easy not to do.” You won’t notice any real difference the first day you think that way and you might not sense a big change in a week, but over time, you’ll gradually move in a better direction of thinking and put your mind to work for you! Think of it as putting your thoughts to work in “cruise control”. Over time, it becomes automatic and makes it infinitely easier to chart a steady course to becoming your best!