Making Sense of the Three Brains

10.01.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course Understanding meditation and the science behind it by Colin Pal


All change begins with thinking. We can immediately form new neurological connections and circuits that reflect our new thoughts. This is the gift of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change its structure and functioning in response to your experiences (mental habits, behaviors, and physical experiences). That means you can unlearn old mental habits and behaviors and create new ones. We know that neurons that fire together, wire together. So, it is also true that neurons that no longer fire together, no longer wire together. Meditation taps into this ability to transform your relationship with your daily experiences.


Parts of the Brain

To understand how this works, let’s break down the brain into three parts to make sense of its function in creating thought patterns and behaviors.

Neocortex. First is the neocortex, our “thinking brain,” which is the brain’s walnut-like outer layer. It’s the newest and most advanced hardware of the brain, the seat of our conscious mind and brain functions like learning, reasoning, analyzing, and making decisions. It processes knowledge and creates neural networks in preparation for experiences.

Limbic Brain. Next is the limbic Brain, our “emotional brain” or sometimes known as the mammalian brain, which is located under the layer of the neocortex. When the neural networks of the neocortex fire during the experience, the limbic brain releases chemicals that trigger changes in the body to prepare it. This chemical change reflects emotions you are feeling. The experience then triggers an emotion that the body memorizes in relation to that experience. This is why you can remember events better when you can recall how you felt emotionally at the time. The limbic brain produces chemicals to help it remember experiences so it can be better at predicting responses to similar future events.

Cerebellum. Finally, the cerebellum, the seat of our unconscious mind. It stores habitual thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. It’s located at the back of the skull and acts as the brain’s microprocessor and memory center. When a thought pattern and neurochemical experience is rehearsed over and over, the cerebellum memorizes it and stores it as a program in our subconscious so it becomes automatic.


Choosing Response over Reaction

This mechanism was programmed for survival, and when it comes to helping us survive physical and life threats, it’s quite useful and effective. But in today’s world, we encounter fewer physical threats and more psychological and emotional dangers like, “Am I going to lose my job?” or, “I got rejected because I am not worthy enough,” or, “Am I lovable?” The brain treats both physical and psychological dangers the same.

When you get into an argument with a loved one over a certain topic, your neocortex processes the argument, your limbic brain creates an emotional response in relation to the argument, and when done frequently, the cerebellum memorizes and stores it. This creates your mental habit and behavior to this topic of argument. Now when someone else brings up a topic similar to that one, your cerebellum brings that stored program up and triggers your neocortex and limbic brain to react the same way you reacted to the previous experiences. You get caught in this mindless loop of impulsively reacting, which can get you into a lot of trouble.

Meditation trains your ability to pay attention to the experiences moment by moment. So, when you begin to feel triggered, instead of letting the unconscious run your brain and reacting, you can consciously choose a response. By skillfully doing so, your neocortex creates a new neural network and your limbic brain creates a new emotional change in relation to the experience. Repeat this, and you train your cerebellum to memorize a new and healthier habit.

“Pay attention, your presence is the currency of connection and the greatest gift you can give someone.”Tweet this.


Challenge of the Day

A popular mindfulness practice is the STOP method. You can practice this every time you’re triggered, to remind yourself to pause and recognize if you are reacting on impulses and old habits.

S – Stop.
T – Take a breath.
O – Observe what’s going on in this moment. Practice mindfulness.
P – Proceed skillfully.

I challenge you to use this practice today to navigate a conversation. Tomorrow, we’ll dive into the science of stress.


Recommended book

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach


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