All three layers of the brain (lizard, mammalian, neocortex) are loosely connected via an extensive network of nerves. The mammalian brain and neocortex influence each other via ongoing communication, linking emotions with thinking and with voluntary action. The unique interplay of our memories and emotions with thinking and actions is the basis for our individual personalities and our humanity and its unique characteristics.
While we like to think of our neocortex or thinking brain as being our conscious decision maker, it is, in reality, only selectively conscious or limited by the ability to attain “pure consciousness.” Psychologists generally agree that at best we are only 15-20 percent conscious of our motivations and behaviors. This means that even when we think we’re being rational and conscious, we’re largely being driven subconsciously by previous similar experiences and emotions.
The mammalian brain stores our emotional memories. When confronted by a situation, it “searches” its stockpile of past experiences for information on how to react. Going back to the earliest time we experienced a similar situation, it checks what the response was at the time and responds similarly. In other words, the present reaction replicates the response and emotions triggered by the earlier situation and experience. It is as if the brain looks to find pattern/template in the situation and the respond.
There are times, however, when the primary functions of the various brain levels are at odds with each other. Think of the conflict you might feel when having to make a difficult decision or when you can’t seem to prevent yourself from acting irrationally.
Here’s an example: You’ve made a conscious decision (neocortex) not to eat chocolate tonight because you know chocolate triggers a migraine if you eat it when you’re tired. Your subconscious brain (mammalian), however, thinks: “Mm-m, but chocolate tastes so gooood, I love chocolate and crave for it”. You resist, initially (neocortex), but then suddenly, you eat the chocolate anyway, justifying it by saying: “I’ll only have a little bit; I worked hard today and deserve a reward”. It is clear that the unconscious brain wins.
The subconscious brain is the ultimate decision maker; it most of the times wins. In some cases, it is the unconscious reptilian brain that is concerned with our survival, “saving us from ourselves”, as it were. If it determines a situation is not good for us, it will say, “No.” In the example above, however, since the chocolate wasn’t risking your life, the decision was deferred from the reptilian brain to the (also subconscious) mammalian brain, where the emotional memories of chocolate’s good taste and previous use as a reward were securely stored.
The combination of reptilian/lizard brain and early emotional memories stored in the mammalian brain determine our response. And when our response feels out of sync with our conscious intention, we create a rationale to justify our reaction.
Can our conscious brain ever win? Understanding the different roles of our three brains, and especially the combined functions of our unconscious and subconscious brains, is important in understanding our self-sabotaging behaviors and in beginning to take control.
Understanding that our conscious, thinking, logical brain is actually only responsible for, at best, 20% of our decision making helps explain why changing behavior or making changes can be very challenging.
The mammalian brain tries to re-create childhood responses, so it can heal the old childhood wounds. This “repetition compulsion” of similar destructive situation is designed to ultimately overcome the negative feeling with the associated situation. As such, understanding the interconnectedness of our brain(s) and our behaviors can help liberate us from undesirable circles of repetition and set us on a new path to wellness.
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