Dan Siegel showing Lewis the hand model of the brain
In his book,“The Whole Brain Child,” Dan Siegel
refers to the thinking brain as the “upstairs brain” and the emotional and
instinctive brains as the “downstairs brain.” These names refer to the fact that the newer thinking brain
is located above the older (emotional and instinctive) brain structures.
The upstairs brain has the ability to plan for the
future, taking into account the lessons of the past. For this reason, it’s the upstairs brain that can provide
guidance for the downstairs brain’s activities. But to do its job well, the upstairs brain needs to be fully
attentive to the physical and emotional information which the downstairs brain
sends up to it. And for
their relationship to be balanced, the downstairs brain must also be receptive
to the guidance it receives from above.
When the upstairs and downstairs brains are well-integrated, we have a rich, full emotional life, and a healthy, energetic body. We’re able to make full use of our upper brain’s capacity for rational and creative thought, without getting taken over by our fears, desires, or instinctual urges.
When the upstairs and downstairs brain are well-integrated, their relationship is like a two-way street. Information can travel freely in both directions, and each brain takes into account what the other has to say.
If our upstairs brain dominates the downstairs
brain, we tend to live “in our heads,”
in a kind of emotional desert, out of touch with our emotional nature, and out
of touch with our bodies.
When the upstairs brain dominates, their relationship is more like a one-way street. The upstairs brain easily sends messages to the downstairs brain, but messages from the downstairs brain have a hard time getting through to the upstairs brain.
As a result, we may be very rational, but our emotional and sensual lives may be somewhat pale, lacking in color and intensity.
On the other hand, if the downstairs brain dominates, we can be driven by our emotional reactions, or by impulsive cravings and addictions of various kinds. When either brain dominates the other, our health and our relationships generally suffer.
As a result, our emotions and sensations become vivid and intense, but they tend to be irrational and out-of-control.
When you remember to breathe, your MPFC can more easily bring your upstairs and downstairs brain into harmony. You can then benefit from the special wisdom each has to offer. And you feel as though you're living from a core of calm, ease, and contentment.
Integration of the upstairs and downstairs brains has many other beneficial effects, which you will encounter as you go through the other pages of this site.