You Control the Control Center
Life or Death Reasons to Know More About Your Brain
The headline said it all. Man Released After Serving Time for a Road Rage Incident, Killed in Another Road Rage Incident.
That’s not only a tragedy; it’s completely preventable.
The fundamental consideration is, are you using your mind, or is it using you?
It is crucial to understand how the mind functions to avoid losing yourself (or your life) in life’s circumstances. Also, to access your innate power and train the mind to keep you alive, safe, and rational in any situation.
The brain structure and function
I studied the brain up close and personal while earning a degree in biology. When I discuss brain morphology and function in my coaching workshops, people usually ask for less about the brain and more about technique.
So, this tutorial gets to the crux. It provides a general understanding giving you enough information to improve in short order.
Humans have a highly evolved Triune Brain, three brains that intricately work together to make one mind.
1. The Basal Ganglia or the reptilian brain is a group of structures buried deep, at the base of the cerebral hemispheres.
It is involved with thirst, hunger and, sexuality, as well as the development of habits and routine memory like riding a bike or driving a stick-shift.
2.The Limbic System is involved with emotions and feelings. It’s a complex system of structures such as the amygdala and the hypothalamus that work together to regulate and manage our emotional life. It largely determines behavior. It’s also involved in the formation of memories.
3.The Prefrontal Cortex is the most frontal section of what is also known as the human brain. It governs executive functions: judgment, problem-solving, ethical reasoning, and creativity.
Multiple complex functions help all three brains work together. Still, a brief study of two critical structures, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex, will make you highly effective in the shortest timeframe.
The first is the amygdala, the fight-or-flight response structure. This almond-shaped package of nerves commandeers the entire body’s response to threats.
It is continually scanning in the background, always ready to react to a threat with lightning speed, way ahead of thought.
Let’s say you are hiking, and you lose footing.
Your amygdala is the fire alarm that calls all systems on duty, including the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol. That’s why you have increased focus, energy, and strength to reach out and grab a branch without thinking about it.
The amygdala is perfectly designed for our evolutionary past, where a threat could be a potentially deadly encounter with a saber-toothed tiger or a mastodon.
Without thinking about it, we either dig in and fight or run across the savannah to safety. The fight-or-flight response initiated by the amygdala keeps us out of danger.
Second, the fist-sized prefrontal cortex sits behind your forehead. It governs executive functions such as judgment, problem-solving, self-control, ethical reasoning, and creativity. These higher-level cognitive processes are unique to humans.
You could think of the amygdala as the territorial bouncer on the lookout for a fight and the prefrontal cortex as the composed, rational and creative CEO.
Stress and the amygdala
We all know chronic stress causes high blood pressure and clogged arteries. But chronic stress also keeps your amygdala buzzing on high alert.
A hyper-aroused amygdala is a hair-trigger continually looking for a threat. It makes you overreact to everything. That would be a bonus if you encountered a saber-toothed tiger.
But overreacting in a traffic jam, when challenged by co-workers or during a high-stakes meeting can lead to an unfortunate tragedy.
I saw overreaction show up as road rage when I was in law enforcement back in the day. Chronically overstimulated drivers were hijacked, out of control, and blind to danger. You couldn’t get their attention, let alone stop them. They stopped only when the perceived threat was gone.
When it was over, they would say, I don’t know what got into me.
One judge I worked with said these drivers were hijacked when they woke up in the morning; they just didn’t realize it, referring to their continuously over-aroused amygdala.
If you are unaware, on autopilot and not paying attention, you don’t understand what is happening to you.
You just react to the stressors that are always present; your amygdala stays turned on, and stress accumulates without you consciously knowing it.
It’s insidious, but your amygdala ends up in the lead, using you. Your rational brain, the executive functions are overridden and offline.
When the territorial bouncer is in the lead, you make poor choices and use bad judgment. The intelligent and rational CEO is inaccessible.
Rather than keep you safe like it was designed to do through evolution, a modern-day, chronically over-stimulated amygdala puts you in harm’s way.
A servant to circumstances
I’m pointing to a fundamental limitation that everyone faces. The untrained mind is unreliable, and this condition puts us at the mercy of life’s circumstances.
If the call is to train the mind, the answer is not the guru or the psychologist.
The expert with the highest direct knowledge, the one who has collected enough data and experiences to use the mind rather than be used by it, is you.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate. — Carl G. Jung
Shift from servant to master
What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you.
Carl Jung observed that we operate by subroutines that are automatic, subconscious. Until we see how we are directed by our thinking, previous experiences, and our conditioning, we are fated to the zombie status quo.
That’s the basis for the truism; the mind is a beautiful servant but a terrible master.
Identify and intercept the conditioned response to life’s sandpaper — frustrations, disappointments, and the judgments, labels, or accusing eyes of your neighbor.
Acknowledge, feel, and name them.
Allow these feelings to move through you without blocking or rejecting.
Recognize, yes, it is there, but you are in control, your buttons are not pushed. This is how you engage your CEO brain and diminish activating the amygdala.
What follows will be familiar advice to those who have practiced awareness, mindfulness, or meditation.
Preventive muscle building
*Bring yourself to the present. Breathe. Touch a table or name what you see in the room, there’s a plant, a chair. Yes, it is that simple.
Between stimulus and response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. — Viktor E. Frankl
Realize that you are okay right where you are. There is nothing that is needed. You are breathing, and you have food and shelter, you have you. Life is okay.
*Now that you are grounded, Become more sensitive in a good way. Build your muscle of compassion.
There is a lot of uncertainty in the world. Everyone will be anxious in different ways.
Overreaction is a matter of degree.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always. –Brad Meltzer
A team member gave me a prickly reply. I caught myself and went through the motions to ground myself, so I could be the person I wanted to be.
I also wanted to avoid ruining a relationship that I valued.
In the process, I realized that I was seeing their anxiety, and fear, their humanness.
Now I look deeper than the behavior and try to see the person.
*Develop a stillness practice, awareness, mindfulness, or meditation. Make it your own.
It’s comforting to read about the effects of a stillness or meditation practice, but it is liberating to discover the power for yourself.
Research shows that after eight weeks of stillness, centering or mindfulness practice, the brain’s fight-or-flight center, the amygdala, shrinks and the thickness of and connection to the prefrontal cortex increases.
At bottom, you gradually develop the life-saving ability to override the fire alarm call of the amygdala and respond with poise and intelligence despite what you are feeling.
You are using your mind as designed.