Hello and welcome to the second article of my neuro blog. In the first one last month, I described the three parts of the human brain (see just below for a second representation of the triune brain), notably the importance of the unconscious. In future posts, I expect to delve into how the fact that our brain processes are mostly unconscious impacts our decision-making and consequently our behaviour. But today, I’d like to engage you in considering what your brain is for. Obviously, there are many possible answers.
But let me suggest this one: our brain is there to help us make sense of our environment – which is external of course but also internal.
How do we make sense? Well, sense arises from the linking of emotion to stimuli which, when associated with language in our cortex, produces meaning.
Consider this second image and the process of meaning-making it proposes:
The process described above tells us that we have two specific brain components, the amygdalae, which process all stimuli – which will be sensory of course but can also be internal, such as our own conscious thoughts. The amygdalae guard the gates of our brains: think of them as customs officers who decide who gets in. But they are also like a newspaper editor who decides what news to report on and how to spin it. They are located in the limbic brain and, as such, our first interaction with any stimulus is an unconscious and emotional one. The process suggests that the cortex is only implicated last, with raw emotions combining to possibly create more elaborate feelings which produce our experience of the stimulus.
Let me be transparent that this is a simplified version of what actually goes on but it helps us grasp that nothing is experienced directly since our amygdalae process all stimuli. In consequence, nothing is actually real: what we experience is completely subjective because it is the product of an evaluation process in our brain. Another conclusion is that there is no thinking which is not emotional which in turn implies that our decisions and behaviours are rooted in emotion with any rationale therefore representing only an ex-post rationalization.
So what? If my experience is just that – mine – then I can better conceive that others will have different perceptions, different opinions, different reactions. I can be more tolerant and compassionate.
Further, since ours is only an edited reality which is the result of an interpretative process, then I can use my consciousness to take another look at my subjective reality: I can challenge it and re-interpret it. That can be a useful exercise to engage in when my experience is negative or at least unhelpful. I can reframe my experience, think about it differently: these new thoughts about an experience in turn become a stimulus which my amygdalae will process and which may lead to (a) different emotion(s).
If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!