Neuroscience is a complex field that is very different from therapy, although the two are overlapping more and more as research in both arenas becomes more robust and abundant. Still, neuroscience speaks in a very different language – mapping brain parts and functions, tracking neurochemicals and hormones, and using highly specific biological terms – that can not feel especially meaningful.
Psychotherapy focuses on subjective experience: feelings, thoughts, beliefs, narratives, relationships, and personal meaning. Psychotherapy speaks the language of everyday experience, the one we use with ourselves. Neuroscience speaks about the same lived experiences as though they were objects devoid of consciousness. Even as a therapist, I can find it hard to relate.
I do find, however, that having even a very basic understanding of how you brain and nervous system are put together can significantly reduce suffering: because it can help you make sense out of things that you don’t understand, and also help you take effective action. So here is a quick rundown of the most important things you need to know.
Your Conscious Self is not You
It’s important to understand that humans have three major parts in their brain: the “reptilian” brain, the “mammalian” brain, and the prefrontal cortex. I won’t go much into the anatomy, but here’s what each does:
The reptilian brain is the oldest part of our brain (it is the first to develop in the womb, and also the part that has been around on earth the longest). We share with all other sentient beings. It sits at the top of the brain stem and is responsible for ensuring our survival by helping us detect and avoid danger, seek out basic necessities (such as food, water, sex), and perform basic biological functions (breathing, eating, sleeping, pooping and peeing.)
The mammalian brain is the next to develop, in gestation and evolutionarily. It is the part that helps us negotiate our relationships (as mammals, we are wired to need one other) and experience emotions. It helps us monitor danger, discern what is pleasurable and what is scary, and what is relevant to survival. Together, the reptilian and mammalian brains are referred to as the “emotional brain”
The last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which some would describe as the seat of consciousness. This is the rational part of our brain that is responsible for thinking about, assessing, and analyzing internal and external signals. It is responsible for generating a conscious understanding of how things work and how we can accomplish our goals. The prefrontal cortex occupies only 30% of your total brain mass.
These three parts of the brain work together, constantly. The reptilian brain scans and responds to danger, the mammalian brain categorizes emotions and copes with/responds to challenges (through emotional expression and regulation), and the prefrontal cortex thinks through and constant flow of internal external data— more or less like a computer would. These are all “you.”
Many psychological or emotional problems arise (most notably trauma and PTSD) when these parts of the brain aren’t communicating with each other correctly, or when we have expectations of ourselves that are not aligned with our fundamental biology.
In our society we each tend to identify our “self” with the prefrontal cortex, or at least with everything that we are consciously aware of and therefore most in control of. After all, how can you identify with the unknown in yourself?
Identity gives us a sense of coherence, stability, and purpose. So when constructing it, we will look both outside of ourselves, and also inward, cobbling together what we can see.
The limits of this way of identifying become clear when you consider that a huge amount of what goes on in our brains and bodies are completely outside our awareness, and yet can powerfully influence our perceptions, choices and behaviors.
Where This Shows Up In Your Life
Do you ever become “irrationally” angry, sad, scared, lonely, depressed or anxious?
Or do you get frustrated when certain emotions become “sticky” (you can’t seem to shake them, even though the trigger has long passed)?
Do you find that you suddenly get spacey for “no good reason”?
Do you ever do things in your relationships that you don’t feel like you chose to do?
Do you sometimes feel like you sometimes make good decisions while at other almost identical junctures you make bad ones?
Do you ever feel compelled to drink alcohol, smoke, or eat much more than you normally would and not understand why?
Do you ever feel like you’re not always in control of what’s happening?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then Congratulations! You’re human. Here’s what may be going on.
Your Emotional Brain is Faster Than You
This part gets a little science-y, but stay with me.
Your brain’s top priority is to ensure your survival.
In the emotional brain, your thalamus is receiving information continuously. It sends this information instantly to two different places: Your amygdala, the part of your reptilian brain that sends the “red alert” signals that generate fight-or-flight responses throughout your body; and the prefrontal cortex, which rationally assesses whether the information is a danger. For better or worse, it takes longer for the information to reach the prefrontal cortex than it takes to reach the amygdala. That means that you may find yourself reacting to something without having been given a chance to think about it. As Bessel van der Kolk, a prominent neuropsychologist, psychologist puts: “The emotional brain has first dibs on interpreting information.”*
This doesn’t mean that once you have a chance to think about it, the feelings will go away. Even if your prefrontal cortex gives the “All OK” signal, it takes time for the autonomic nervous system to come back to a resting state, and for your body to eliminate the stress hormones that may have flooded your system. And, of course, even when we think about it, we may still consider something dangerous. This is the case when (1) We are actually in imminent danger; (2) When we are having a posttraumatic response; or (3) When our closely held feelings, beliefs and identities are challenged.
Many might read this and think, “well I don’t have PTSD or find myself in dangerous situations often, so what does this have to do with me?”
Fascinating research has found that our brains do not just scan for danger to our physical bodies, but also dangers to our worldview or identities. This is most clearly seen in what is known as the “backfire effect”, which describes the phenomenon in which people who are presented with information that challenges their current worldview will experience the same physiological stress as though they were in physical danger. This means that essentially, we are set up to respond to lots of nonphysical threats as though they are dangerous.
This has huge implications for democratic politics (and that’s what much of the research focuses on) but it also explains why we get so reactive to ourselves and those around us. If you get negative feedback about your job performance, and you are strongly identified with your work, then you may feel shame or rage. If your partner gets annoyed with you, you may feel panicked that they don’t love you.
You may also have the experience of getting emotionally triggered and not knowing why, or not understanding the intensity of the feeling. Our reptilian brains are pretty unsophisticated – they work in rough similarities, not careful comparisons. (Have you ever seen a piece of lint or a shadow and felt startled because you thought it was a spider? That’s your reptilian brain in action.) Likewise, in relationships, a situation that shares some important components with an emotionally-charged situation in our past may elicit similar feelings, even if we rationally know it isn’t the same. (This happens all the time in romantic relationships).
The point is, don’t get frustrated with yourself for not being able to logic your way out of a feeling.
If you find yourself stuck in uncomfortable feelings that are out of proportion the present situation, it may be time to do some reflection on why your system is responding the way it is. Allow the feeling and any body sensations to become fully present, and then do a “float back” – When have I felt this way before?
With this awareness, opportunities for new neural pathways and association emerge. In many cases, mindfulness, insight, and earnest efforts to change behavioral and thought patterns will be enough to shift the response. But these efforts need to engage all of you: your body, mind, feelings and interpersonal relationships. Trying to resolve an emotional problem using only cognition is like trying to plant a garden in concrete.
In some cases, that won’t be enough—and that usually indicates some degree of trauma in your past. If this is the case, it may be time to engage with a trauma-informed healing professional (a therapist or somatic/body worker).
*Source: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk