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Our Unbalanced Brains:
How They Got That Way

A Brain That’s Out of Sync with Itself

          In a way, you could say we don't have one brain in our head, we have three – our instinctive, emotional, and thinking brains – and they are out of balance with each other. Not only with each other, they’re also out of balance with the world we live in. Although we live in a world vastly different from ancient times, our brain continues to respond to things the way it did way back in the past. 

The Instinctive Brain

          Our brain stem – or instinctive brain – is great when it comes to protecting us from physical danger and keeping our basic bodily functions in working order.  But it’s clueless with regard to our mental and emotional needs.  Its main job is making sure we’re safe and secure – and it won’t hesitate to sacrifice the rest of our life goals for the sake of our safety and security.  Like a knight in shining armor, it’s very well-intentioned but its methods are out of date. The rigid, mechanical methods it uses to keep us safe can cause more problems than they solve.

The Emotional Brain

          Our limbic region or “emotional brain” is great for helping us connect to others, but it can easily be hijacked by the survival agenda of our instinctive brain, or manipulated by the goals and plans of our thinking brain. When the natural function of our emotional brain is interfered with, we end up trying to use other people to satisfy our own emotional needs. 

The Thinking Brain

          Our cerebral cortex or “thinking brain” is good at analyzing situations and figuring out how to respond to them, but it may ride roughshod over our physical and emotional needs to accomplish its ends. In the long run, this can cause us to experience a good deal of physical pain and/or mental suffering.

A Brain That's Out of Sync with Modern Life

The Autonomic Nervous System

          Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) developed in an environment that was much simpler than the one we live in today. In that more primitive environment, it generally did a good job of revving up the body to deal with danger, and then calming it down once the danger had passed.  

          As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explains in his book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” after a zebra manages to escape from a lion or other predator, the zebra just lets it go.  He or she doesn’t spend the rest of the day worrying about it: “Oh my God, what do I do now? My life is a disaster. I’ll never be free of that psychopathic lion. Imagine him trying to kill me – what nerve! What did I ever do to deserve this?”

          These kinds of thoughts – to which we humans are so prone – trigger our brain to keep sending alarm messages to our ANS, telling it to stay on the alert for possible action. That prolonged state of alert can lead to ulcers, as well as a host of other stress-related diseases.

          And to make matters worse, our modern world is overflowing with commercials, political attack ads, violent video games and music, all of which play on our fears and keep our brains on alert. This constant over-stimulation makes it extremely difficult for the ANS to do its job of balancing our energy.

The Instinctive Brain

          Our instinctive and emotional brains are wired to be on the constant lookout for physical threats.  In the jungle, if you ignored a movement in the bushes, you might soon be someone else’s lunch. But nowadays, our brains react to more frequent psychological threats – criticism from a friend, the potential loss of a job – the same way it reacts to physical ones.     

          When our brain is constantly sending out danger signals, our hormones and neurotransmitters get way out of balance, our sympathetic nervous system (the part of the ANS responsible for activating the body) is in constant overdrive, and our immune system and other bodily systems suffer, leading ultimately to various kinds physical and mental illness.

The Emotional Brain

          Our emotional brains have been wired to function well in a small community of similar kinds of people – 100 or so that you’d see every day for your whole life. Our brain has not adjusted to the challenge of being in contact – whether directly or indirectly through various media – with thousands or even millions of people on a regular basis.

          About 30 years ago, the average American had three close friends they confided in. By 2004, that number dropped to two.  Now, ten years later, 25% of Americans have no close confidants at all.  This lack of strong social connections is widely believed to be a major factor underlying the dramatic increase in depression and other mental illnesses. Health experts predict that by 2020, depression will be the second most common disease in the world.

          (On the Most Important Page, we tell the story of the Rosetto community as an example of just how important strong social connections are to our health and happiness.)

The Thinking Brain

           Many of our most problematic habits are related to the fact that our thinking brain has not adjusted well to the modern world.

Too Much of a Good Thing

          For example, humans who lived many thousands of years ago lived in an environment in which food was relatively scarce. Their brains were programmed to prefer foods that were naturally higher in caloric density in order to help them survive through periods when food was less available.   But over-eating was almost unheard of.

          By contrast, our modern world presents us with an overabundance of unhealthy foods – often engineered to trigger our instinct for caloric density (high in fat and sugar) – presenting us with temptations our ancestors didn’t have to deal with.  To compound matters, our thinking brains are more complex than theirs were. We can ruminate about past pleasure, and come up with ever new ways to repeat or increase that pleasure.  The combination of our modern environment and modern brains is a fertile soil in which obesity and unhealthy eating have blossomed.

          Yet, research shows that when all the parts of our brain are in balance, they can guide us to eat almost precisely the number of calories we require, as well as the kinds of food that our body needs.

          The same holds true for all kinds of habits.  Because the pleasure mechanisms of the brain are out of whack, and our environment is filled with endless sources of potential pleasure, we’re prone to a number of unhealthy habits that can make us sick and even kill us.  But when our brains are in balance, we naturally tend to make choices that are both wiser and healthier.

Too Much Control

           Another aspect of modern life is that it encourages a style of thinking that divides up the world into more manageable chunks or categories so that it will be easier for us to navigate and control.  This kind of thinking is characteristic of the left hemisphere of our brain. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with it – in fact, it’s made possible many of the amazing achievements of modern science.

          However, when our left hemisphere dominates our right hemisphere, it’s much harder for the right hemisphere to perform its important functions.  Those functions include enabling us to see the larger impact of our actions, to see and correct our own mistakes, and to deal with the less predictable, less controllable aspects of life.

          It’s also the right hemisphere that connects us to our emotions and physical sensations. When it’s dominated by the left hemisphere, we’re out of touch with our bodies and emotions, and have trouble understanding others’ emotions as well.  Without access to the full richness of our emotions, we tend to feel kind of empty inside.  In our desire to take the edge off that emptiness, we’re more likely to indulge the impulses of our emotional and instinctive brains, and become susceptible to all kind of addictions – food, drugs, and compulsive behaviors like shopping, internet surfing, video games, etc.

The Mid-Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC) and the Heart Brain

          If all the parts of our brain were in harmony with each other and we lived in close-knit communities that supported healthy habits, our MPFC and heart brain would naturally flourish and keep our brains and lives in balance.  But since that’s rarely the case these days, our MPFC and heart brain have difficulty performing their natural roles as co-directors of the various members of our brain-body crew.  And as a consequence, our brains and lives are out of balance.

          But this does not have to be grim news.  Thanks to the life-changing discoveries of neuroscience in recent decades, we now know that our brains can change dramatically, and that it’s possible to train our brains to make them more balanced and more in harmony with the world.