Monday, September 21, 2015

The Battle of the Brains

As far as "good" and "evil" are concerned, I think the Grand Play of Life Itself involves both constructive and destructive forces, which individuals may take more or less personally. I feel there is "inertia" built into the system to keep things from changing too quickly in any direction, and although it may be frustrating for people who are trying to bring about positive change, the inertia is there for a reason: too much change, too quickly, can bring chaos and a destruction of structures that may seem restrictive in some ways but are actually supportive in others.

As Robert Pirsig describes in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals - there is this ongoing play between "static" and "Dynamic" quality - and they each seem to be the "enemy" of the other, but it is their ongoing interrelationship that is the underlying mechanism of evolution, both individual-biological and social-cultural.

I would offer that within our own brains there are components that reflect the path of our evolution - reptile (fight, flight, freeze response), paleo-limbic (herd/social brain/group positioning/dominance vs. submissiveness and trust vs. mistrust), neo-limbic, (individual identity/motivation), and pre-frontal (rational, creative, empathic), with the pre-frontal brain being the most recently and I will offer most "highly" evolved in terms of its capabilities for Dynamic interaction with the environment. The other brain structures tend to be much more "static" or "programmed"; i.e. the reptile brain develops automatically, the paleo-limbic brain is more-or-less "set" in its perception of "group positioning" fairly early in life, and the neo-limbic brain locks into its individual "identity" and emotional patterning fairly early in life as well (although it and the paleo-limbic brain do come under the influence of environment more so than the reptile brain).

However, it is the pre-frontal brain which is most influenced by and depends on the environment to develop its full potential - its potential for regulating the more (reactive) patterned responses of the reptile, paleo-limbic, and neo-limbic brains; to think rationally and logically; to solve problems creatively; and to be effective at empathy via perspective taking.

My theory is that the internal battles that people often fight with themselves in their own heads (as well as projecting those battles into the outer world), stem from the "inertia" of the lower brains that do not want to allow "the new kid on the block," i.e. the pre-frontal brain, to be in charge of behavior. Since the pre-frontal brain is not of much help until it has a chance to develop (between infancy and 24 years of age), the other brains actually do "run the show" early on, and it kind of makes sense that they would not want to release control to the pre-frontal brain without some resistance.

Nevertheless, it is the pre-frontal brain that has evolved to help us live more effectively in social groups, even very large social groups, via its capacity for empathy/perspective taking (allowing for compassion), rational thought (to more accurately understand cause and effect relationships among other things), emotional self-regulation (i.e. regulation of the patterned responses of the neo-limbic, paleo-limbic, and reptile brains), and creative problem solving.

From my current point of view, the limbic and reptile brains express more of our "egoic" or "self-centered" personalities, concerned much more with individual "self"-survival than with survival of the larger community, while the pre-frontal brain is our "higher power," because it has the capacity to "see the big picture/society as a whole", to understand and integrate multiple points of view, and to respond creatively to novel situations. However, again, it will not develop these capacities to their full extent unless it is trained to do so via the environment - parental, educational, cultural, etc. (And, as mentioned above, there is a limited window for this development to take place; i.e. between infancy and about 24 years of age.) Furthermore, the pre-frontal brain will always be at least a little at odds with the other brains; there will always be some "ego" to deal with, some tendencies towards selfishness, tendencies towards fear, etc. You can't ever really transcend the "ego", because you can't "get rid of" the lower parts of the brain.

All of those parts of the brain are what helped to get human beings to where they are now, along with the higher functions of the pre-frontal brain. It may be difficult sometimes to live with them, but we also can't live without them.

Consequently, if people feel threatened, the fear response is coming from the reptile and limbic brains. Actively "transcending" that fear is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Looking rationally at cause and effect relationships is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Being able to empathize with another's point of view, even an "enemy's" point of view, is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Being able to stay calm in the midst of external stressors, is the work of the pre-frontal brain.

However, one of the things you don't necessarily get from the pre-frontal brain is "high"; i.e. feelings of ecstasy. Instead, you get kind of mellow, peaceful, content emotions. In that sense, it may seem rather dull, compared to what the limbic brain can generate when it is inclined to do so - especially in circumstances of "romantic love" - which has more to do with an unconscious response to subliminal signaling of genetic compatibility than it does with just about anything else! (Which is unfortunate, because genetic compatibility can only go so far when it comes to people being compatible with one another in all the other areas of human life we now engage as members of this increasingly complex social system.) But that's a whole different matter...!

To summarize, from my current point of view, the lower limbic and reptile brains are a source of "inertia" for human beings; i.e. they develop very patterned/programmed ways of responding to the world fairly early in human development. The pre-frontal brain is actually capable of "transcending" all of that With Practice - whether the discipline is religious or secular, practices that focus on emotional self-regulation develop the pre-frontal brain's capacity to do just that; i.e. self-regulate. Practices that focus on empathy (perspective taking) and compassion, also engage the pre-frontal brain. Just "getting high" on "romantic love" or "spiritual ecstasy" (through whatever mechanism, including the drug-induced kind) - is not a product of the pre-frontal brain. Instead, that's only produced by and reinforcing of the rather self-serving nature of the lower limbic brain(s).

Our world is in all too many ways a projection of these ongoing battles within our own heads. The conflicts, the battles we see "out there", reflect something of the same conflicts and struggles human beings experience within there own minds (brains) and bodies. Many people will seek "spiritual bliss," thinking it is "the highest expression of their nature," when actually, being calm, cool, collected, rational, and (truly, consciously, intentionally) empathetic and compassionate towards others is the "highest" expression of our human nature.

If someone speaks of "raising their consciousness to a 'higher vibration'" I might substitute, "in their higher (pre-frontal) brain", where, absolutely, they could look at the negatives in the world and come up with creative solutions for "healing" them. They could empathize more deeply and see more clearly from multiple perspectives in order to resolve conflicts more effectively. Nevertheless, all of that would definitely not be about being "blissed out" all of the time, and thinking that is somehow "magically" going to "Change the World." There's a lot more Work involved than that, and that is what the pre-frontal brain is good for!

(For more information on the reptile, paleo-limbic, neo-limbic, and pre-frontal brains check out the Udemy course: Master Your Brain: Neuroscience for Personal Development.)

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