The Connection Between Brain Function, Behavior, And Your Emotions

There are three parts of the human brain, referred to as the "triune brain." Paul D.MacLean, an early research director for the National Institute of Mental Health, postulated the Triune Brain Theory. It states that the human brain is a product of three stages of evolution and is actually three separate brains that have evolved into one brain over long periods of time.

Three Parts

The first section [the lowest portion of the brain] is comprised of the top part of the spinal cord, the medulla oblongata, the pons, and the cerebellum. MacClean calls this “the reptilian brain.” As he stated, “at its base [the human brain] was a variation in the elaboration of the reptilian brain."

The limbic system [located in the mid-portion of the brain] states MacClean, "was an elaboration of the new mammalian brain from the Jurassic period". He termed it the "mid-brain" or the neo-mammalian brain (new mammal).

The upper most and largest part of the human brain, the cerebral cortex, encompasses our logic centers, our "intellect." MacClean termed this portion "the neo-cortex" (new cortex).

Fundamental Behavior

The Reptilian or "vegetable brain" [recall the autonomic nervous system functions], is fundamentally concerned with homeostasis, which is involved in regulating all of the body functions that allow each of us to be human, get up every day, and live our lives. If you do not have a well-functioning lower brain, if you have a tumor, if you have a trauma, if you’re in an accident, if something happens to your brainstem, you may no longer have the capacity to control the day to day homeostatic functions to maintain your life.

Interpreting Information

Embedded inside the Limbic System is a structure identified as the Reticular Activating System, which has pathways as well as neurons traveling throughout the lower brain, up through the medulla oblongata, across the Limbic System, and into the Neo-Cortex or the "thinking brain".

The Limbic System and Reticular Activating System interpret sensory motor messages that are "incoming" from the person's environment. It is in this portion of the brain that we not only interpret the "incoming stimuli and information," but we also select methods for survival and adaptation.

Here is where it gets exciting to put the anatomy and physiology of brain function and the psychology of personality together!

Putting It All Together To Survive

We know the neo-cortex is our thinking, intellectual brain – our "smart brain" – and most of us know individuals who are brilliant academically or intellectually yet they are emotionally dysfunctional in the extreme. Our thinking brain would presume that being "smart" or intellectually capable would exercise dominion over one's emotions, however, the missing piece of information here is that our emotions actually are a survival adaptation mechanism that each of us individually develops as we process our early environment and social conditioning. Nothing is more powerful in the human being than its drive to survive! Hence, our emotions win the day in the battle between thinking and feeling.

It is critically important for each of us to understand that our emotions represent how we learned to adapt in our surroundings and environment, especially during the first 0-5 years of our development. Our familial "input" taught us, as did Pavlov with his dogs, how to respond to the stimuli we received as infants and toddlers.

Your Brain And Relationships

This embedded neurological conditioning is not overcome by the thought process, as the thought process for humans is the "newest" component to our primordial brain. It is in the adaptive portion of our brain where we form our "personality" and where we become conditioned to create and interact within relationships.

When we understand the possibility that the interpersonal issues that frustrate us may come not from "being difficult" or having "bad intent" but rather from our drive to survive and our interpretation of the stimulation and environment we were conditioned by, then we can begin to be "kinder and gentler" towards ourselves and others.

In summary, our emotions are the way we learn to live and survive in our world. We cannot "think them" into changing, but we can step back and appreciate the service and challenge they offer us in our daily lives.

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Why Do We Need Emotions?

Most of us perceive the brain as serving “thinking” or intellectual functions. A person often thinks of his or her personality as what is going on “from the neck up.” In fact, several parts of the brain — not just the thinking cortex — contribute to who a person is and how their personality is formed. 

The Cortex Of Survival

The cortex is what we refer to as the smart brain. Most of us know individuals who are brilliant academically or intellectually, yet they are emotionally dysfunctional almost in the extreme. We often presume erroneously that the thinking brain should be “smart” enough to exercise dominion over emotions.

However, the missing piece of information here is that emotions actually are a survival-adaptation mechanism that each of us develops as we process our early environment and social conditioning. Some of us learn to be assertive or aggressive in our environments. Others may learn to become passive or try to become invisible to stay safe and secure.

Nothing is more powerful in a human being than the drive to survive. Hence, emotions win the day in the battle between thinking and feeling. It is helpful to understand that emotions represent how we learned to adapt in our surroundings and environment, especially during the first five years of development.

More Input

Our familial input taught us, as Ivan Pavlov taught his dogs, how to respond to the stimuli we received as infants and toddlers. This embedded neurological conditioning is not overcome by the thought process; the thought process for humans is the newest component to the primordial brain. The survival adaptive portion of the brain is where the personality forms and where people become conditioned to create and interact within relationships.

Relationships And Conditioning

Frustrating interpersonal issues may come from the drive to survive and the interpretation of the stimulation and environment that conditioned us, rather than from being difficult or having bad intent. Understanding that can allow a person to begin to be “kinder and gentler” toward himself and others.

In summary, emotions enable us to live and survive in our world. We cannot think them into changing. However, we can step back and appreciate the service and challenge they offer us in our daily lives. We can also explore techniques that allow us to have greater control over our emotions.

For a free chapter download of the award-winning bestselling book Changing Behavior: Immediately Transform Your Relationships with Easy to Learn, Proven Communication Skills, visit: http://www.changingbehavior.org