30 years ago, my professor Jean-Piere De Waele said something that has always stuck with me: “The brain is the only organ in the world that studies itself”.
It’s true, and it’s fascinating. Our brains play a huge role in the way we interact with others, communicate, and lead. So how can we lead with the brain in mind?
In this post, I’d like to talk about a very simplified concept of the brain that can help us do exactly that. When you understand the evolutionary importance of each part, you can start to see why Mind Growing is an apt title for my upcoming book.
Different Parts, Different Roles
The Reptilian Brainstem
About 500 million years ago, long before we humans were around, the first reptile-like creatures roamed the land. Arguably, they possessed a brain structure that was significantly less evolutionarily developed.
I call this the ‘reptile brain’, and it consisted primarily of what we now consider the brainstem. This brain area processed – it still does – a vast amount of environmental stimuli per second to ensure the creature’s survival. When it detected an environmental threat, it would trigger a sympathetic, ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response in the croc’s nervous system.
The Mammalian Limbic System
A couple of hundred million years later, a different brain area had developed – the limbic brain. By this point, animals such as mammals were living in groups to thrive and survive, so they required new neurological capabilities.
The limbic brain enabled them to interact adaptively with others so that the group as a collective could survive its environment. I call it the ‘mammalian brain’, and among other things, it helped the mammals of the day to navigate group dynamics. Who was friendly, and therefore ‘safe’? Who had power and was dominant?
Based on the feelings the limbic system made them feel, they learned to behave in certain ways, avoiding, approaching, or engaging as the situation required.
The Rational Neocortex
Last to develop was the neocortex – the part that controls planning, language, abstract thinking, and conscious, logical reasoning. The ‘rational brain,’ as I call it, helps us attribute meaning to our sensory and emotional experiences.
Here’s the (perhaps) surprising part: before they get processed by our rational brains, stimuli go through our limbic brains. Before we can make sense of a stimulus, therefore, we have an emotional – if not instinctual – reaction to it.
The Parts in Action
Do they all get along? Not necessarily. And despite what we may think, it’s why we don’t always respond to situations in the way we’d quite like.
As an example, let’s say the head of a different department walks into your office. With his hands on his hips, he says loudly: “Things are going to change around here – it’s time for a new approach – starting NOW.”
You’ll probably feel a gut reaction to this right away. Perhaps you tense up, and your heart rate increases. While you can’t see it, your pupils dilate. That’s your reptile brain in action, stimulating a sympathetic nervous response.
Then, you might have a limbic response – perhaps you recoil ever so slightly, you might feel angry or flushed. If you were a chimp, you might have attacked!
Finally, your rational neocortex comes into play. You may still feel emotional, reactive, but you can start to think now. Wait, what’s going on? Who is this guy? Is this maybe even a good thing?
Just one example of the huge influence that our brain has on our behavior. And, that despite our best efforts, we don’t always respond with our rational brains first. What we can do is become more aware of how these different brain areas work and start to use them to our advantage. But more on this later!
Over To You
How fascinating are our brains? As Professor De Waele pointed out so many years ago, we as humans are unique in our ability to critique and examine our brains.
I unpack this concept in further detail in Mind Growing, which comes out early next year. If you’re keen to find out more about how our brain affects our behavior in the meantime, don’t hesitate to send me an email: marc[at]compassiontolead.net.