“The brain is built like an ice cream cone (and you are the top scoop): Through evolutionary time, as higher functions were added, a new scoop was placed on top, but the lower scoops were left largely unchanged. In this way, our human brainstem, cerebellum, and midbrain are not very different in overall plan from that of a frog. It’s just that a frog has only rudimentary higher areas in addition (barely more than one scoop). All those structures plus the hypothalamus, thalamus, and limbic systems are not that different between humans and rats (two scoops), which have a small and simple cortex, while we humans have all that plus a hugely elaborated cortex (three scoops). When new, higher functions were added, this did not result in redesign of the whole brain from the ground up; a new scoop was just added on top. Hence, in true kludge fashion, our brains contain regions, like the midbrain visual center, that are functional remains of our evolutionary past.”
— David J. Linden The Accidental Mind
Here’s how I see the three parts of the brain:
Neocortex (rational brain):
This is where language, power of choice, imagination, intellect, executive function, and reason come from. The great thing about the neocortex is that it’s conscious, and therefore open to discussion and can learn. This is what is addressed in meditation, education, talk therapy, 12 step programs, religion, etc.
Midbrain (limbic system or mammalian brain):
This is where warm fuzzy bonding feelings come from, the instincts around food and reproduction. When someone is tired, or after a couple of drinks, and they can’t stop eating, or they must cuddle without a thought to consequences? Midbrain decision. Many people are compulsively stuck in midbrain instincts. It records and reproduces human emotions. Much of the midbrain is subconscious or unconscious and not open to talking unless a therapeutic method brings it conscious.
This is the part that performs the “fight or flight response”. When a person goes through trauma or is under stress, it grabs on and sends signals to the rest of the brain that there’s trouble, even after the trouble is over, or when trying to sleep, or years later. Where it really shines is when there actually is trouble, in which case it’s awesome and can make you strong in a way that you never knew you had in you, so you can survive if you are being, say, hunted. Otherwise it is often an irrational inappropriate nutjob. It also controls vital functions – heart rate, breathing, balance, body temperature. It causes a lot of problems for people. It’s way down in the base of the brain and you have no idea consciously what it’s up to. I like to call it my unconscious lizard brain that does whatever it wants while I am walking around pretending to be a person.
In the Craniosacral world we say a person’s “neocortex is not available to them”, which means they are out of it, or they made a bad choice, or they had a meltdown, or they were under the influence… but it’s true. Once a person’s neocortex shuts down, they have underlying animal brains with other ideas of a good time to take over – with instincts which register as needs. The mammalian brain likes to eat, sleep and have indiscriminate sex. The reptilian brain likes to fight or flee and tornado about. Addiction happens here, where the habit latches to the instincts. We all have a human brain atop animal stuff at the core of our instincts running the show.
That’s all fine for a happy person who was raised well in a safe environment and has no unsavory genetics who never had a concussion or trauma or went to war or played hard sports or got sick, and learns swimmingly and life is a joy and their inner animal brains are in sync with their outer human brain. Lucky them.
But a brain stuck in fight or flight because it thinks it’s still at war even though the rest of the person came home, or it’s been tackled too many times, or it grew up in an abusive home, or it comes from two long lines of alcoholics, or was sexually abused, or its neurons don’t fire right, or the environment registers as hostile so it needs to lash out, or because it’s just a strung out type A personality – no matter how safe a brain like that gets – that lizard brain keeps punching that human in the face from behind and causing anxiety, depression, insecurity – or worse – flashbacks, insomnia, headaches, emotional disturbance, outbursts, chronic pain, criminality, suicidality, violence, etc. These are not rational decisions. They come from an irrational place.
The whole brain puts out brainwaves constantly. HPN High Performance Neurofeedback can help to retrain the brainwaves of all three parts of the brain – so that the reptilian brain, midbrain, and neocortex can be organized and in tune.
Over time, inappropriate instincts, needs and compulsions tend to become a matter of choice. The urge to fight or flee, however it shows up, whether it’s insecurity or rage or panic or benders, tends to land in a place of choice and healthy expression. Ability to focus tends to improve because the brain is in tune with itself, and focus can be a matter of choice. Those pesky mammalian impulses can be chosen. For many, “choice” is a very foreign place for these drives. It can take some getting used to.
I have witnessed elegance. Once a brain is in tune with itself, a person can make friends with their problems. It doesn’t matter if they are six years old, sixty years old, an executive, an actor, an addict, a parent, a divorcee, an athlete, or on the autism spectrum. I love people to come in freaking out, I let them freak all they want, they can talk about it or not, and I run the HPN Neurofeedback on those freaking brainwaves. They often come up with a solution right there, full-tilt drama one minute, then their inner swami comes out, or they laugh and say something wise that makes me want to steal their words, but I can’t, because it is so inherently “them” that I couldn’t get away with it. I’ve met the person for who they really are. Then they leave and forget what was bothering them.
This is my idea of a good time.