Who's Driving This Thing, Anyway?

I have been told once or twice that when I talk about something I often go on slight tangents - I mean, sometimes you gotta tell a side story to make the first story better, right?  Well, I had a few ideas for what I might write about today, but realized that one specific tangent kept popping up.  Instead of taking you all on a long, winding journey of a post today, I've decided to do something short(ish) to get some of those "side story" details out of the way.

So today, we talk about the brain.

When I started my masters program for counseling, it didn't even occur to me to think about brain chemistry and functioning.  But as more information emerges about how the brain operates it becomes more and more clear that the mind-body connection is so interwoven that we couldn't possibly separate the two.  As a therapist then, knowing about the brain has become an integral part of what I do.  It has also helped me understand my personal life as well.  If you take anything from what I write about today, my hope is that it would be a better understanding of how the mind and our emotions influence our bodies and our behaviors.  In other words, we are not as consciously in control as we think - unless we make an effort to do so.

For our purposes, I want to talk about the brain in three parts; the hindbrain or "old" brain, the midbrain, and the frontal cortex or "new" brain.  The "old" brain controls our unconscious/automatic functions like breathing, our heartbeat, and blinking. It is also where "fight, flight or freeze" originates.  All of these automatic functions have come about for pure survival.  If we had to be conscious in order to breathe, or if we had to analyze and problem solve before fleeing from a predator we would all be in real trouble.  These things kick in without us having to think about them - which can save our life, but perhaps also get us into trouble.

The mid-brain is largely where our emotion centers lie.  Of course, there is a lot more to the mid-brain than emotions, but for our purposes that's what I am focusing on.  This is also the area where memories are made.  Anxiety, depression, joy and fear  - as well as our ability to monitor and control the feelings - all dwell in the middle of the brain.

The "new" brain, or frontal cortex, is unique to highly evolved mammals, like humans.  This part of the brain houses our problem-solving, analyzing, decision-making and impulse controlling functions.

Some interesting factoids about the brain:

  • We go through different growth stages in our lifetime where different portions of the brain are being developed, making connections (most of the growth happens in the first months of life)
  • Our frontal cortex is the last to develop, and isn't finished until we are in our mid- to late-twenties      (Our decision-making, impulse-controlling center isn't ready 'til our late twenties!!  Teenagers make a lot more sense now, huh?)
  • The brain is what we call "plastic", it makes and changes connections throughout our lifetime.  What we repeatedly think and do creates connections in the brain - we can change beliefs and behaviors, but it takes time to build new connections and let the old ones go
  • Because memories and emotions live in the same place in the brain, our memories and emotions are linked - that being said, it is impossible to have an objective memory, all memories are subjective (i.e. We put our own meaning to memories, we don't simply record them like a video camera)
  • When we feel threatened (physically or emotionally) our brain goes into fight/flight/freeze mode down in our "old" brain and our frontal cortex turns off to allow that to happen.  You cannot make sound decisions when you are emotionally charged.
  • The act of putting words to feelings (talking/writing) actually helps the brain process the emotion from a place of raw feelings to a place of logic and reason
  • Our minds can cause physical change: stress and fear can make us physically ill, and then conversely, joy and relaxation can make us physically healthier

There are so many ways in which this information applies to our personal and professional lives.  Consider conflict in a relationship, the behavior of children and teens, or your own behavior when you feel angry or scared.

So, I said this was going to be just an information giving post - despite the fact that I would love to go into how all this brain stuff can apply in therapy.  The brain is so complex that many neuro- specialists compare it to the universe - impossible to know fully.  But from my "skimming the surface" blog post today, I hope I have set some groundwork for future posts.  But first, I would like to hear your thoughts.  How do you see this information applied in your own life??  What do you take away from this information?