Thursday, July 15, 2010


Lately, I've found myself doing my very best to explain some of the fundamentals of brain science to individual clients who seem bewildered by their own sometimes contradictory thoughts and behavior. And so I was pleased to come across an article today entitled "It's a Jungle in There: Our Brains Are Not As Evolved As We Might Think" and I'd like to recommend that you click through and spend a little time with it.

Here's an excerpt:

The neocortex, for example—the part of the brain that organizes our powers of conscious thought, imagination, and empathy—must coexist and cooperate with primitive survival networks conserved by natural selection through hundreds of thousands of generations. This means that beneath our newer equipment, capable of composing sonnets and developing computers, are structures driven by primitive instincts, unconscious impulses, and primordial fears. Within our skulls, the reptilian, ancient mammalian, and modern human brains attempt to coexist and cooperate, at least enough to get us through the day.

The American physician and neuroscientist Paul MacLean first discussed this structure, which he called the "triune brain." The basis of his theory is that the contemporary human brain resembles a site inhabited by successive civilizations, and embodies a living record of our deep evolutionary history. At its core is the reptilian brain, responsible for arousal, homeostasis, and reproduction. The paleomammalian ("old-mammal") brain, involved with learning, memory, and emotion, surrounds it. The neomammalian ("new-mammal") brain, required for conscious thought and self-awareness, sits atop the other two. These levels roughly conform to the common distinction of brainstem, limbic system, and cortex. Though MacLean's theory has many significant limitations, it can both assist us to better understand some of the most distinctive features of human experience and give us fresh insight into how psychotherapy influences brain function.

MacLean suggested that our three brains don't necessarily work well together because each of them processes information in a distinctive manner and has a unique agenda. The functions of the reptilian brain, which drive our instincts and behaviors—fear, rage, eating, mating—retain a good deal of executive control over our actions, while only a small region of the cortex is capable of conscious awareness and articulating its strategies. This means that multiple levels of the brain often vie for dominance simultaneously and in conflict with each other....

An awareness of how the brain is put together can definitely help us cultivate both an understanding and acceptance of some of our inner struggles. All to the good, I'd say.


  1. All doze beeg werds makes me buhrain hert!

  2. Anonymous1:16 PM

    I have lately been reading Mind in the Making:the Seven Essential Life skills Every Child Needs and The Brain that Changes Itself. The brain has remarkable abilities. Now if I just remembered to use mine!


  3. Yes, Marilyn, I agree. The brain is amazing and it seems we're learning more about it every day.


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