You are alone in the middle of the woods when you suddenly spot a bear right in front of you. He looks mad — and hungry. Your heart pounds, muscles tense to the point of pain. The sudden encounter triggers alarms in your head, which release a milkshake of chemicals in your body putting you in “fight-or-flight” mode.
These unconscious impulses force you into action before you’ve fully comprehended the details of your situation — that is, before the information reaches the rational part of your brain, the neocortex. If not for this early response, you would probably be dinner.
Now let’s take a more common scenario from everyday life.
Your boss asks you to step into his office. You’ve barely entered when he starts yelling at you about your poor performance, unmet KPIs, and the like. Again, your heart races, your palms sweat. And before you’ve fully assessed this “threat,” you burst out with everything you think about him.
You are screwed. Here, your instinctual impulses worked against you.
These scenarios perfectly illustrate how similarly our brain reacts to fundamentally different stressors and the very different results that response can bring. In one situation it saves your life while in the other it costs you a job.
Why the hell does our brain treat criticism from the boss like a deadly threat that requires an immediate response?
The reason is simple: part of our brain hasn’t developed since the early days of humankind; it still thinks we live the way our early ancestors lived hundreds of thousands of years ago and interprets information accordingly.
In other words, our brain is outdated. And that has an enormous effect on our perception of the world around us.
The roots of all your reasoning
Simply put, our brain is divided into two parts: one that feels (amygdala) and one that thinks (neocortex). When we see, feel, or hear something, our body sends signals directly to amygdala, which makes us act in some particular way before our rational brain can filter the information.
It is only after a while that the information reaches the neocortex and goes through, say, the IQ filter.
According to Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who first introduced the term “emotional intelligence,” the amygdala was the part of the brain that developed first.
“That fact that the thinking brain grew from the emotional reveals much about the relationship of thought to feeling; there was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one,” writes Goleman in Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
The reason our brains have developed this way brings us to the origins of humanity. At the dawn of humankind, when we lived in the wild and were exposed to numerous dangers every day, the emotional brain was critical to our survival — just as it still is for wild animals.
The time interval before you spot danger and when that information reaches your neocortex is, in most cases, too long to properly prepare to defend yourself. That’s why our body instinctively gives us the impulse to act before we can think about it.
Thus, no matter how smart or evolved we have become, we still blindly act on the primitive impulses orchestrated by our emotional brain — it’s the root of all our reasoning.
The emotional brain hasn’t had an update in 100,000 years
As humans progressed, the neocortex grew — but on top of the amygdala. Over time we have developed better capacity for learning and other mental activities: We absorb information better, have self-awareness, and can basically do everything else we do that distinguishes us from animals.
Despite our developed neocortex, we still respond to stressors the way our early ancestors did. Information goes first to the amygdala, makes our body react in some way, and only then is the information passed on to the neocortex.
Even though we live in a modern civilized world, we still can’t resist impulses coming from the emotional part of the brain, which treats every stressor as an urgent threat and gives us an instant action plan before letting our thinking brain interfere.
The worst part is that the action plans of the emotional brain are more tailored to wildlife than the civilized world we now live in, thereby leading us to act in ways we may regret.
“What we are born with is what worked best for the last 50,000 human generations, not the last 500 generations — and certainly not the last five,” says Daniel Goleman.
Our brain still demands things that were critical to survival a long time ago but are not necessary today
The world has changed. We have built entire civilizations and introduced laws and social norms to make this world safer. But our emotional brain is still on guard against threats we no longer face and so demands things that were critical to our survival thousands of years ago.
In order to survive, for example, humans had to live in tribes and be recognized as members of them. Living in a group of people that accepted you gave you a better chance to defend yourself from wild animals and other dangers.
This is what our emotional brain still demands of us: social connection and recognition. They are one of our biggest needs.
But with technological advancement and society swiftly shifting to individualism, our social connections are getting weaker. Glued to smartphones every single minute, we become less sociable, so fooling our brain into thinking that we are in danger.
And we start feeling increasingly depressed as a result. The depression is our brain’s call: “Find some humans and join a tribe! Otherwise, you are a dead man.”
Not only that, according to neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, our brain takes its primitive mammalian demands so seriously that when they are not met, it causes us discomfort similar to physical pain.
“Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain… The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth,” explains Lieberman on brainpickings.org.
I think the expectations of our brain — which apparently needs a reality-check — are the underlying reason behind most stressors in our lives. Relationships and recognition, for example, are no longer critical to survival. But our brain still demands them as if they are, and so sometimes causes more stress than needed.
The brain doesn’t understand that we have “grown up,” we have built civilizations and infrastructure to protect us, and that we no longer need some of its protective triggers — some of which might, ironically, be dangerous in the modern world.
The learning model of the emotional brain doesn’t work in a civilized society
The emotional brain (amygdala) also has the ability to learn. It means that it not only responds to information, but also forms an unconscious opinion about it based on our previous — usually formative — experiences.
According to Daniel Goleman, our brain can form an unconscious opinion in a few milliseconds: “Research has shown that in the first few milliseconds of our perceiving something we not only unconsciously comprehend what it is, but decide whether we like it or not.”
In the wild, this “feature” is helpful because we can unconsciously form rapid opinions about environment, food, animals, and other things we encounter. We know whether we like that smell or not, whether we can touch something or not. It helps us avoid poisonous plants, predators, and keeps us from repeating mistakes.
In a civilized world, by contrast, the opinion of the emotional brain can be harmful because it tends to overgeneralize information.
Unlike in the wild, in a civilized society there’s no single right answer. If you are physically abused by your bald father it doesn’t mean that all bald men are going to be abusive. If you didn’t get support from your parents during your childhood, it doesn’t mean that everyone in the world will be unsupportive. But that’s basically how the emotional brain perceives life lessons.
The way our emotional brain learns makes us form generalized opinions about people, situations, and the like based on our previous formative experiences, most of which occur in childhood. It distorts our rational perception of the world and is definitely not suitable for a civilized world where generalization simply doesn’t work.
The only way to update your brain is to develop the capacity for self-awareness
The bad news is that neither your so called thinking brain nor a high IQ can control your emotional brain.
One thing for sure, we can’t turn off our emotional brain or suppress its impulses before the neocortex interferes. The instinctive reasoning of the amygdala will always play a big role in our lives.
Being aware of the responses that your emotional brain elicits, however, can give you a better grasp of your brain’s reasoning and more control over its impulses when the information finally reaches the rational part of the brain.
“The prefrontal cortex can refine or put the brakes on the amygdala’s impulse to rampage, but cannot keep it from reacting in the first place. Thus while we cannot decide when we have our emotional outbursts, we have more control over how long they last,” Goleman explains.
Next time you feel angry or depressed, think about your brain structure and what impacts your feelings. Think of the emotional brain and what it might be interpreting in that situation.
That will help you to develop the capacity for self-awareness and better control the responses of your emotional brain, which, apparently, needs a big update.
P.S. If you have questions, please tweet me at @dainiusrun