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A History Lesson on Human Emotion, our Relationships and the Brain – Part One

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The following article is an excerpt taken from “The Key to Self Mastery: How to Master your Personal and Professional Life Circumstances”

Module One: A History Lesson about Human Emotion and the Brain Part One

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If you have read any of my books or have been to any of my seminars, you have likely heard me say that “emotion changes what people do; logic changes what people think” or “we do not choose our feelings; our feelings change us”.

In other words, if we do not take into account that people are primarily emotional and self-interested then we will widely miss the mark in our interactions with them.

In the next next four articles, I will try to validate that point of view, people are largely driven more by emotion than reason, based on what science tells us about our brain.

In these posts I will try to give you a brief historical overview of how our brain(s) and the emotions it generates developed so that we can know what to do about the rather strange and the somewhat counterproductive feelings that we experience from time to time.

We have Three Brains, not One

We actually have three separate, truly amazing brains, from three very different stages of evolution, all working together.

In simple terms we have a physical brain (the reptilian brain), an emotional brain (the limbic system) and a thinking brain (the prefrontal neo cortex).

Although all three brains are chemically and anatomically distinct (neurosurgeons can separate them like sections of an orange) and have different purposes, they are densely wired together to get you through your day.

Of course these two more recent brains, the limbic brain and the prefrontal neo-cortex have further divisions, both left and right. 

 

1.  The Physical Reptilian Brain

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The primitive, physical, reptilian brain was the first to develop.

It is our extraordinary, automatically runs-your-body-perfectly brain

Nature hardwired our reptilian ancestors for their own individual survival.

Apart from a drive to have sex, reptiles have no parental instinct.

 Most of them cheerfully eat their young, which is why they’re programmed to lay eggs and get out of town before they hatch.

Your physical, reptilian brain also has the control centers for fear and aggression, our deepest and most primitive emotions.

Killing prey, territorial defense, fight or flight, sexual predation and ruthless self-interest are the legacy of our earliest ancestors.

Reptiles developed our primal negative emotions. Surges of adrenaline, morphine, serotonin and scores of other chemicals flood the crocodile’s brain when the prey dives into the river.

For humans, the automatic, physical, reptilian brain controls our automatic processes: breathing, blinking, shifting in your seat, daydreaming, keeping enough distance between you and the car in front of you, even scowling and cursing slower drivers.

These reptilian flight or flight instincts are still a deeply powerful part of us but then here comes the limbic brain.

The Limbic Emotional Brain

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Eventually, mammals built a whole new brain that sits right on top of the reptilian/physical forebrain, which included the hypothalamus (specialized to coordinate basic drives and motivations), the hippocampus (specialized for memory), and the amygdala (specialized for emotional learning and responding).

These structures are sometimes referred to as the limbic system (from Latin limbus, “border” or “margin”) because they wrap around the rest of the brain, forming a border.

You can think of it as the emotional brain.

It’s an actual, physical chunk of brain that runs our emotions, and in many ways it’s the most important brain you have.

You can scoop this brain up and hold it in your hand. You can see it work with functional MRI scanning.

You can trace its development back a hundred million years.

Complex emotions, from the limbic brain, are the reason mammals succeeded, the reason we survived when the dinosaurs did not.

The limbic brain makes us social and emotional creatures from start to finish.

Our primitive physical brain still runs our most basic functions, giving us a fierce, primal drive for our personal survival.

What the reptilian brain doesn’t give us is a concern for the survival of our children or the ability to sense the emotions of others.

 

 Our Limbic Brain Gives Us Two Critical Advantages over the Reptiles

It lets us:

1. Love our young and

2. Work in groups.

Its first and most powerful creation is the emotional cascade triggered by the sight and sounds of our own offspring.

The overwhelming biology of parental love swamps our more basic, selfish instincts, don’t eat the baby!

As time went by, the limbic tool kit allowed us to build a complex neurological array of positive reinforcement for the sharing of food, warmth, shelter, information and parenting.

Parenting and Living in Packs

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Mammals succeeded because we learned how to invest much more in our young than lizards do.

Predator mammals, like bears and humans, on the other hand, have few offspring, take a long time to raise them to independence and safety, and are profoundly connected to them.

The loss of a predator child is a major genetic blow to the parent, and the limbic brain drives a much greater emotional attachment so they begin to hunt more effectively and share child-raising.

The key point is that our limbic brain is physically in control of your primitive brain and deeply wired into it, but it’s only in partial control.

It has a series of small control centers that sit on top of and around the physical brain.

Each center is primarily responsible for different moods, but they are cross-wired so they talk to one another all the time. In a very real sense, your emotions and moods control your body’s basic, physical chemistry.

Think stress.

We Have That Brain and Those Chemicals Today

Humans took the same chemistry, these automatic reptilian impulses and reactions to their environment, the same neurological pathways, the same wiring, and eventually turned them into positive emotions.

Reptiles run purely on negative reinforcement.

 Mammals invented love, joy, pleasure and play, all of which are enshrined in our DNA, in the chemical and neurological pathways in our limbic brains.

So the obvious question is, why did we go further?

What’s the biological point of love or friendship, of being happy, sad or optimistic?

Why invest energy in a whole new level of brain structure?

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 The Answer Is to Work Together.

In practical terms, that means you will pay a steep physical price if you don’t get the emotional structure of your life into fairly good shape. Luckily for us, although the limbic brain responds to both positive and negative reinforcement, it responds best to the chemistry of pleasure.

We feel good about our offspring and about being part of a working group.

Back In Nature, Packs Let Us Forage with a Collective Ease

Packs also let us sleep: a surprisingly important activity, which we spend a third of our lives at.

Reptiles can’t synchronize their rhythms and therefore can’t rely on a pack to let them sleep.

They can never relax, never rely on the group to watch their back when their eyes are closed.

Emotions let us do this collectively rather than individually, which puts us a half-step ahead of the competition.

But the reptilian brain still is always there, lurking below the surface of group living.

You, the individual, still have to survive in order to reproduce.

So the limbic brain and the reptilian brain learned to work together, balancing the individual with the pack, conjoining and converging the primal emotions of fear and aggression with the new emotions of love, joy, pleasure and play.

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This is the Art Form We Call Life

Being part of a pack takes constant social positive reinforcement.

If we don’t experience it, if we isolate ourselves, the negative chemistry of our reptilian brain takes over.

That’s why play turns out to be such a surprisingly important mammalian achievement.

It’s a strong signal that we are part of a healthy group.

Our limbic brain leads us to crave companionship for its own sake.

To want to belong to and matter to those around us.

To love, and to be loved in return.

 

Why can we Connect so Deeply With Others?

Why can the person across the room, or the table, affect your mood so powerfully, stir you to passion, anger, laughter or tears?

You’ve had this experience.

You know that friends, family, storytellers, musicians, actors, and audiences, all have this effect on your own moods and emotions.

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How Does This Work?

The explanation is, in the end, simple and physical.

Because of the limbic way we’re made, we are not emotional islands.

Simply put, we complete each other.

In both good and bad ways, to be sure, but we do complete each other, and therefore we cannot make it alone.

This is such a magical part of being alive that it seems almost sacrilegious to look behind the curtain.

But the biology turns out to be just as magical as the experience, fairly simple, and critical to the rest of your life.

 

Your Limbic Brain Reads the Real World and Makes Emotions Out of it

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We read hundreds of subtle signals in each encounter: body language, tone of voice, the flickers of facial expression that give nuance to each sentence, the glances that speak their own volumes.

But remember that our limbic muscles need to be exercised hard, just like physical ones.

Your blood pressure actually goes up when you talk and down when you listen.

So do whatever you need to do to share your feelings, and learn how to listen.

Don’t be surprised if you feel awkward here and there, and don’t give up.

It’s a long, slow, difficult, uncomfortable journey.

Do it anyway.

It is a bedazzingly, wondrous and worthwhile odyssey, the steep, twisting turning pathway and the attendant thorns and thistles notwithstanding.

3) The Thinking Cortex Brain

As mammals grew in size and diversified in behavior (after the dinosaurs became extinct), the remodeling continued.

Among primates, a new layer of neural tissue developed and spread to surround the old limbic system.

This Cortex (Latin for “new covering”) is the gray matter characteristic of human brains.

The front portion of the Cortex engages in thinking, planning, and decision making, mental processes that can free an organism from responding only to an immediate situation.

The frontal cortex is the seat of reason. It has taken over control, though not perfectly, from the more primitive limbic system.

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Quite Interestingly the Cortex is also Involved in Emotional Processing.

The lower third of the frontal cortex, the part of the brain just above the eyes (orbit is the Latin term for the eye socket), is especially large in humans and other primates and is one of the most consistently active areas of the brain during emotional reactions.

The orbitofrontal cortex plays a central role when you size up the reward and punishment possibilities of a situation; the neurons in this part of the cortex fire wildly when there is an immediate possibility of pleasure or pain, loss or gain.

When you feel yourself drawn to a meal, a landscape, or an attractive person, or repelled by a dead animal, a bad song, or a blind date, your orbitofrontal cortex is working hard to give you an emotional feeling of wanting to approach or to get away.

The orbitofrontal cortex helps reason and emotion work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the brutish beast lurking deep within the reptilian and limbic brains) does most of the work.

 

 Our Brain: The Small Rider on a Large Animal Analogy

To understand the relationship of the three brains, the physical, the emotional and thinking brain to each other, think of the physical reaction we have to anxiety.

That’s the limbic brain kicking your reptilian adrenaline into action, like a rider on a large, powerful horse; some authors use the analogy of other beasts, for instance Jonathon Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant.

My preferred analogy is that the reptilian and to some extent the limbic brain are like the 800 pound gorilla in the brain, leering menacingly, waiting to pounce, except you can’t or don’t ride a gorilla.

So as apt a description as the gorilla might be, it doesn’t quite fit.

So a powerful stallion upon which we are mounted which like any wild, unbroken and untamed beast has lurking within it a violent and very mean streak, is our analogy of choice.

And it certainly does not like to be told what to do, where to go or what to say.

Does that remind you of anybody?

Quite possibly, you; it certainly, when I am stressed reminds me of well, “me’.

So there you have it, we actually have three brains and the the reptilian is the oldest, strongest most experienced and best, relative to the other two brains,  at what it does.

It runs the show and as we shall see, this is not always a good thing

In part two, we will discuss what this, having these three distinct brains, means to us in modern (business) life, our lives and our personal relationships.

For more on this topic, we recommend the following

Book

The Key to Self Mastery

How to Master Your Personal and
Professional Life Circumstances

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