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19. Let Me Introduce You... To Your Brain

'The brain struggling to understand the brain is society trying to explain itself.' Colin Blakemore (from Mechanics of the Mind, 1977) When you think of your brain, do you think of a sophisticated, mature and extraordinarily complex phenomenon? Do you marvel at its ability to assimilate complex information, reason, understand, intuit, create? Do you look around at the world we've created, our cities, our technology, our buildings, our politics, our wars, our paintings, our symphonies, our literature and simply wonder at this organ that is capable of producing these things? Or when you think of your brain do think more of the way it rules us, the way it governs our reactions, colours our moods and generally causes mayhem in our lives? If you've ever suffered from a low mood, or anxiety, or worry, or thoughts that you just can't get rid of, then you know how your brain can really spoil things. Whichever way you think of your brain you'd be right, because there are several parts of our brain - some parts create, some reason, some appreciate, others create fear, sadness, hurt and general misery. And still another part, probably unique to human beings, allows us to be onlookers to all this. So not only do we experience all these things the first time, but we get to reflect on our experience, re-experience it, draw meaning from it and have feelings about it. That part of our brain tells us what is and isn't ok to feel, think and experience. It tells us that if we're happy then we're succeeding, and if we're frightened then we're weak. When we're feeling bad it tells us that we're feeling bad and that it's about time we felt better. In truth our brain is both our triumph and our downfall. Time we understood it better. To understand the human brain you have to go back in time. Back to early life on earth - fish, reptiles, birds. As life evolved, each new form (in terms of survival) was an improved model on the one before. But while new, survival-oriented, features of the body were passed on to succeeding generations, many old parts were passed on at the same time. To cut a long story short, the result is that while humans have a cerebral cortex that is three times the size of our nearest relatives and has given us immense advantages in terms of survival, there are also parts of our brain that a lizard would not be surprised to have. These parts of our brain are contained within what is called the limbic system. The limbic system is a primitive danger detector. It is the part of our brain that told our forebears that a rustle in the grass could mean death. It puts our bodies on high alert, preparing us either to fight or flee from whatever the grass turns out to reveal. The fact that it might be a gust of wind is neither here nor there, 'better safe than sorry' is the limbic system's motto. By the time the so-called clever part of your brain has worked out what the rustling is, it reasons, you could have been breakfast for a sabre-toothed tiger. You can see the problem. This part of your brain is conditioned to react to the slightest indication of danger, and it is quite unable to distinguish between a juggernaut heading straight for you and your boss asking if they can 'have a word' with you. By the time your cerebral cortex has worked out that, in fact, your boss only wants to discuss parking arrangements, your system is on full alert. And your cerebral cortex is not happy with just letting you know that's nothing wrong. No, it then starts to have an opinion about your reaction. 'Dear oh dear, what is the matter with you?' it intones. 'You're so insecure that you get into this state because you think, just for second, your boss might be unhappy with you. How pathetic is that?' And this is where compassion comes in. If you were going to be really kind to yourself, instead of telling yourself that you're complete idiot for getting in such a state for no good reason, you might tell yourself, 'You poor old thing. You've got this rotten brain that you didn't ask for, and have no control over, and it's made you feel dreadful. Come over here right away and have a big hug.' Try this: 1. Think of an occasion recently when you felt anxious or insecure. 2. Notice what triggered this feeling. 3. What thoughts popped into your mind at that point? 4. How did you treat yourself over this incident? 5. If you were going to be really kind to yourself about it, what would you say? The next time your feelings are triggered, be kind to yourself. It's just that old brain running you ragged again. Do let me know how you get on, and have a good week!