Anger #04 The Triune Brain


MacQuarrie Email Program #04 — How We Function: The Triune Brain

angry04-thetriunebrainCommentary: A huge advance in knowledge of the brain has occurred in the past century; it is astounding what we have learned. However, at the same time, we have learned relatively little about the mind. An assumption of the modern neurosciences is that mind and brain are synonymous (a reflection of scientific materialism) — it is not an assumption with which I agree (nor do I agree with scientific materialism). But I don’t often know where to draw the distinctions, so I often use the term mind-brain when I am unclear.

The Triune Brain

One area that seems fairly clear is the concept of what is called the triune brain, referring to the layered structure of the brain, and the apparent layering of the mind. Simplistically, the mind-brain acts as a set of filters of incoming data. Think of sunglasses — they are a filter to reduce the glare of sunlight. They serve a purpose, but they also change what you see. Similarly the filtering aspect of the mind-brain serves a purpose, and distorts how you behave. (What follows is relatively simplistic, but accurate enough to be useful.)

The Filter of Safety

Neurologically, 99% of the data that you have been observing in the Now I Am Aware Of exercise of the last email enters the base areas of the mind-brain, the brain stem or Lizard Brain, where it is selectively scanned for your safety. If you not safe, you will immediately go into survival mode to protect yourself; this takes about 200 msec or 2/10th of a second. When in survival mode, the words that would be used to describe you might include serious, anxious, cold — it is from this level that you would violate others. In survival mode, others don’t matter! You are in action to defend your very existence.

The Filter of Life Energy (Emotion)

Most of the time this mode of survival is not necessary, so the incoming data advances through the Lizard Brain up to the Mammalian Brain (or Limbic System); the other 1% data (smell) goes here directly. Here the data is assessed (in about 300 msec) for whether the result will be pain or pleasure, pain or gain. It is at this level that most of our emotional experience develops:

  • pain may lead to some kind of moving against or away from, manifest as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and other so-called negative emotions, or
  • pleasure/gain, with a movement towards, manifest as excitement, interest, enthusiasm, et cetera.

If the emotion is really intense, the information is processed at this level, and it appears in your awareness together with as the inability to think clearly. This is especially so with the emotions of powerlessness such as rage. Then, in an attempt to get back to a place of power, you may move into survival mode, and violate from a stance of righteous indignation.

In any event, information is sent back down to the lizard brain (the seat of all movement) for movement into action.

The Filter of Choice (Awareness)

Finally, if the experience is energetically less intense, the data rises still further to the cerebral cortices, the Human Brain, the seat of memory and language, the ability to “think,” and make choices. This requires about 400 msec of processing time. Almost all of this brain processing takes place at the other-than-conscious mind level, and seems to be under conscious choice, but like a pot of stew, what surfaces is only a small part of that actually present in the pot.

Again, information is sent back down for the initiation of movement into action.

Safety precedes Life Energy precedes Choice (S > E > C)

It is essential to recognize that this entire process is a bottom-up processor: safety is more important than life energy, which in turn is more important than choice. Consider, for example, what happens with New Year’s Eve resolutions — the vast majority fail. Why? Suppose you are a smoker, and you decide to stop New Year’s Eve. Almost certainly some part of you wants to smoke (derives pleasure from smoking), and you then attempt to impose the “choice” of not smoking onto that part of you than does want to continue. It doesn’t work! The emotional mind-brain is far more powerful than the human mind-brain.

If you really want to stop smoking, you need certain requirements:

  • Can you find an alternate way of satisfying the emotional system?
  • Can you have a goal of health (in a felt pleasurable sense) rather than a get-away from mode of not smoking?
  • Can you find ways to reward yourself, both intermittently (small pleasures to replace the momentary cigarette) and long-term (something desired to purchase with the money saved)?

All this and more will allow safety and pleasure to support choice, rather than conflict with choice.

Task for this email: Write down two or three instances when you have wanted to change something about your life, and have been unsuccessful. What happened? How did you attempt change? How did you deviate from the goal you set for yourself? Consider to what extent the ideas of safety, pleasure-pain and choice entered into your lack of success? Knowing all this, what could you have done differently.

Coming next: The Role of the Unconscious

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