Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Life in the Brain Stem

A little neuroscience goes a long way to understand the un-understandable. Many years back, I remember learning about the triune brain. The short story is that evolution did not replace former models of the brain, but added layers to it. The bottommost layer is at the brain stem and can be likened to the reptile brain. It knows no emotion but fear, no motivation but survival. When it is threatened, it responds with three choices: Flight/ Fight/ Freeze. No thinking is involved, it just immediately assesses which of the three strategies will best serve its survival. There are two more F's that live in the instinctive layer of the brain stem, two other essentials for our survival— Feed and (pardon my French) F***. 


As mammals ascended the evolutionary ladder, the cortex, the mammalian layer was added. Reptiles simply laid eggs and left the young to themselves (or in some cases, ate them), but mammals needed to nurse and nurture the young until they were old enough to fend for themselves. And so emotion came into the mix, the ability to care and coddle and protect and love was an essential part of survival. Because this layer grew over the reptile layer, flight-fight-or freeze was still active when needed, but this second layer was mostly the brain one lived in.


Then came the human beings and a new layer, the neo-cortex, was added. Not blessed with the teeth of the carnivores, the speed of the gazelles, the strength of the elephant, their survival depended upon the capacity for abstract thought. Along with the opposable thumb and the ability to make tools, this layer gifted humans with both the language to communicate and the skill of conscious thinking that can perceive, describe and connect patterns and make intelligent decisions based on acquired knowledge. The mammalian warmth and capacity for emotion was—and is—still alive and well and indeed, often overcomes this new layer as emotion clouds clear thought. And the reptilian capacity for instinctive survival was—and is— still present and often overcomes the capacity to both feel and think.


And so these three layers are in constant conversation as we move through the world. Things go bad when one dominates over the other. The cold abstract thinker who has not developed the capacity to feel either grief or joy, the explosive personality fueled entirely by emotions, the survivalist convinced that the world is constantly cruel and dangerous and is either frozen in depression or escaping to some outpost in the woods or in a constant state of clenched fists. In the ideal world, our critical thought is driven and framed by our care and love, our emotion is tempered by our understandings of our own feelings and a visit to the brain stem is reserved for the real emergencies of life. 


But would happens when emergency is the norm? When a real emergency occurs— a car cuts in front of you on the freeway or someone enters a room and shouts “Fire!!”, the brain immediately floods the system with adrenaline and other needed hormones for the quick rush of energy needed. This is the body working as it should. But because of the power of the imagination, the emergency can be real or perceived. Which means watching a thriller, violent movie triggers the same responses in the body or reading the newspaper or simply imagining all the terrible things that can happen. And if that sense of emergency becomes a constant presence, ongoing stress or anxiety, the begin to live in the brain stem and lose access to higher feeling or thinking skills. Not a happy situation.


People in power know all about this and purposefully try to keep us in a high-medium-or low grade of fear, knowing that we can’t think clearly and will simply obey those who promise to save them. You see it in the debates, with Pence saying “they’ll take your jobs away if they pay attention to climate change,” Trump saying, “they’ll take your guns away and I’ll keep your neighborhoods safe (won’t let black people move in).” Fire up the fear, shut down human thought and feeling. 


But though I know the Repugnitans are cruelly exploiting our brain structure for their own power and privilege, I also feel good-hearted Democrats asking money for important causes using the same strategy of tapping on my fear to get me to donate. And I hate it! Because each extreme phrase with its CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!! sends me right to the basement of the brain, changes my mood and ruins my day. And between e-mail and texts on the phone, it’s a constant assault. Here’s a sampling just from yesterday:


·     Joe Biden GONE

·     Donald Trump WINS

·      I can’t sleep


·     Really painful

·     Livid!

·     Biden’s lead has DISAPPEARED


“If it bleeds, it leads” is the prevailing motto of both movies and news, because the brain stem overpowers the other two layers of the brain. So when there are 500 channels to choose from and 500 organizations you can donate to, those in charge need to get your attention. That’s why Sex and Violence sell and are so often paired. And it works. The maddening thing is that not only are most people unaware of this dynamic and thus, constantly fall victim to those in power and are duped, but even those who are aware still get dragged down into it. It’s just the way our brains work.


But having read through this, see if you might notice why you are reacting as you are.

A little bit of consciousness goes a long way. And people asking me for money or to sign petitions, please, please, try a different strategy to get my attention. And if you have to use capital letters and exclamation points, “A HOPEFUL SIGN! Join us!” will work much, much better. 


A brain stem is a terrible place to live. May we all ascend on November 3rd!

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