Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Wise Brain and the Wild Brain

we’re all born with ancient brains from back when we hunted on the plains,

and though an awful lot has changed, we still chase the things we chase:

salt, sugar, sex, starch, fat and love—we crave all of the above,

and it feels right when we find them, but we can never get enough...

                                                                  Brad Yoder, 2011, all rights reserved

Sometimes I show the above diagram to a client to illustrate how we humans tend to make decisions, wise and otherwise.

The lower part of the brain, the subcortex, I point out, is the part of our complex nervous system that is much like that of the rest of God’s creatures. It is the primitive, reactive part of the brain designed to help us survive, the part that generates the arousal needed for our “fight or flight” responses to perceived threats. It’s an important asset when there is a fire, an accident or any other immediate or possible danger, and is also the part of us that regulates body functions and urges us to satisfy our cravings for food, drink and sex. 

The higher brain, the neocortex, represents our amazing capacity for reflection, reasoning and creative problem-solving, and in my opinion is the part of us that most represents the image of God. It is here that we can make wise and thoughtful decisions, "wise" representing the kinds of actions we will later feel the least remorse about, and "foolish" being the kinds of impulse-based behaviors about which we are most likely to have profound regrets.

It is of course possible for this higher brain to come up with all kinds of nefarious and unwise schemes as well, depending on the moral values of the individual.

At any rate, when the lower part of our brain is highly activated, is in that impulsive mode in which strong feelings of fear, anger, or desire are escalating, the upper brain is half shut down, is more likely to just be ignored or bypassed. Which may be called for, even lifesaving, in case of a real emergency requiring immediate and drastic action, but catastrophic in life situations that call for careful choice-making.

All too often we humans tend to overreact to situations, perceiving them as crises when they simply represent normal problems. As a result we find ourselves behaving inappropriately, from the reactive rather than the reflective cortex of our brain.

All of the above is vastly oversimplified, of course, in that our brains are far more complex than I’ve described, but I still see this as a helpful picture to keep in mind. We’re surely better off being mindful of which part of our brain is calling the shots, and to make sure we are making wise, life-enhancing choices we’ll feel best about--and blessed by--one, ten or fifty years from now.

So much depends on whether the wise brain or the wild brain is in charge.

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