Let me tell you a story about your brain
Would you like to hear an extraordinary story? This story is special because it’s about you. About all of us, really. And what’s best, it is completely true, and the characters in it are not only real, they live inside you. Our bodies, if we would take a look inside, are a puzzle of different organs, each with their own function and responsibility. All of them are very important for our survival, but there is one organ that is the most important of all, the ruler of all organs, and that is the brain. Your brain is that spongy, mushy structure in your head that looks kind of like a walnut. And what makes it the most important organ in your body? Well the answer is quite simple; our brain makes us who we are. It controls and directs our feelings, thoughts, memories, everything we say and do – it is our core. Within that core, live three important characters whose mission is to take care of you and keep you safe: Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Pre-Frontal Cortex. The three characters are a team and work best while collaborating, each with their own special power and responsibility.
Inspired by the author Christian Bergstrom’s Mindfulness and the brain made easy.
Amygdala, or Amy “the jumpy superhero gorilla” (in superhero terms, she would be Hulk), in this story, really wants to do good. She is what we could call the Antihero. Unfortunately, she is a bit of a drama queen and tends to overreact. Amy is very powerful. It is up to her to notify you if threat is present, and to protect you against it. She is extremely good at her job, sometimes too good, which is why she tends to react even when there is no threat – kicking, screaming, throwing, and breaking everything that is in her way. Amy sometimes confuses stress with real life-threatening danger, and responds to it with turning on the “fight, flight or freeze” mode. When Amy thinks you’re in danger, she takes over the wheel, disconnecting from rational thinking, and some of the higher brain functions like self-regulation, memory, and mental flexibility. That is why it is hard, when Amy takes over, to control your impulses, make wise decisions, follow instructions, and focus.
Hippocampus, or Hippo “the librarian hippopotamus”, is the one who stores all the memories, the good and the bad, helping Amy recognize danger from past experiences. Well, that is if she can be calm and rational, which is not her strong suit. At times, Amy overpowers Hippo completely, making it hard or even impossible for him to do his job.
The last, but most certainly not the least, is Pre-frontal cortex, or Tex “the smart sheriff fox” (in superhero terms, she would be Superman). She is the one who figures things out for you, and helps you make wise decisions. Tex is often the only one who can save the day by preventing Amy (and consequently you) from acting silly. She is very smart, that is why she is responsible for your thoughts, emotions, and actions in relation to your goals. Tex is the one who can calm Amy down, press the pause button, and think before acting. She always asks herself: “Will this reaction help in any way?”, and if the answer is no, she will stop her from reacting. That is, if she is strong enough to stop her. Sometimes Amy is just too powerful, and all of Tex’s powers; reasoning, calming down, finding different solutions, are no match for her strength.
Now let’s see some adventures our heroes have in our brains:
Think of a situation when you felt really hurt because someone had said or done something unkind to you. / Or maybe a situation when you wanted to do something but couldn’t because your parents wouldn’t allow it. / Or what about the time when you didn’t want to share your toys with the other kids but a teacher said you had to.
At that moment you could have reacted poorly, but you decided not to. You knew it could only make things worse, so you stayed calm and used your words. That is because Tex saved the day, preventing Amy from overreacting.
Now think of a similar situation, but one, where the result was different.
At that moment, when your feelings were hurt, Amy pushed the “Danger!” button, and Tex couldn’t help you from reacting in an “Amy way”. That is why, you might have said something unkind back, pushed the other kid away, froze or yelled (which is usually the Kryptonite of us, grown-ups).
When we experience strong emotions like fear, sadness or anger, we react in a way our ancestor would while facing a saber-toothed tiger – that is how evolution wired our brains. And even if the dangers we are facing today have very little to do with the dangers our ancestors faced, our brain still reacts in the same way.
While grown-ups can, more or less, stop those impulses, as they have learned to do so with their shiny fully developed pre-frontal cortex, it is completely normal for children that controlling themselves is often an impossible task. Children are missing some of the essential hardwiring needed to control their impulses.
Your brain gets stronger and wiser as you grow, and it is only fully developed when you grow up. What’s important to remember is that Amy is older than Tex. She was already strong the day you were born, but Tex grows with you – the more you use her, the faster she gains strength. That is why when we are small, Tex is not as strong yet, which makes it easier for Amy to take over on many occasions. So you need to help Tex out, whenever you can. If you focus all of your own superhero strength to help her press that pause button, you will see that in time it will become easier, and easier to work together as a team.
That is why being empathic to our children’s feelings and actions (even though it’s a mission impossible sometimes), being patient, and teaching by example is so important. The more opportunities we use to train them to use Tex rather than Amy, the more tools we give them to do so by themselves, and the better we explain their feelings to them, the easier it gets for all of us.
One of the tricks we can all use is to practice Mindfulness (which I wrote about in one of my previous articles), as these exercises help to strengthen Tex and Hippo, while reducing Amy’s power over us.
What we all need to remember is that, while practice might not make perfect, and Amy will still come out at times guns blazing, it will surely make it better.
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