Blog: Our Two Brains

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I read this book by Kristen Jensen called “Good Pictures, Bad Pictures.” While it is a book about how to talk to your small kids about the affects of pornography in an innocent and cool way, I want to talk about the part of the book that has had a big impact on me since reading it: the idea that we have two brains! 

In the book, Kristen tells a story of a mother and son talking about the impact of pornography on our minds. The mother tells her son about how we have two brains: one called the feeling brain, and one called the thinking brain.

The feeling brain is the part of our brain that develops early and is responsible for our subconscious processes that are important for our survival. The thinking part of our brain is centered in the frontal lobe which takes years and years to develop. This part of the brain is responsible for our personalities, and cognitive development, and things like self-awareness and discipline. Both brains need to work together. If we let the feeling brain take over, we would be overly impulsive. The thinking brain needs to be able to step in and regulate our feelings and impulses for our safety.

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In another book called “Switch,” Chip and Dan Heath describe the two parts of our brain the emotional side which is “instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure, and the rational side “known as the reflective or conscious system” (pg 6). The Heath brothers take a fairly pessimistic perspective of the two parts of our brains with an analogy that compares the two parts of our brain to an elephant and its rider. The elephant being the emotional side, and the rider being the rational side. How easy do you think it would be to control an elephant?! That is exactly what the Heaths are suggesting. Change and self-control are so difficult because our emotional mind is so overbearing! 

If we were to allow the feeling part of our brain to take control, of course self-control would be impossible! In “Switch” the Heaths suggest that self-discipline is a limited resource that when it becomes exhausted, we will have no choice but to allow our emotions to take over and lose our self-control. They even quote a study where two groups of students were given an impossible math puzzle to solve. One group was prepped for this test by being put into a room with cookies and told they could not have them. This group ultimately succumbed to the frustration of the math problem sooner than the group told they could have as many cookies as they wanted. 

Now, there may be some merit to this study in the sense that when make some food forbidden, we are naturally drawn to it. That is a topic I discussed with Carol Danaher in episode 036. There is something to the concept of neutralizing our feelings around food, but this is beside the point. It’s easier to have self-discipline around food that is not forbidden.

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There may also be some merit to this idea that when we are exhausted, we should recover, not give up! In one of my favorite books, “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr, I learned that our energy source is meant to ebb and flow between periods of stress and recovery – that when we feel ourselves getting depleted, we should do something to recover, rather than try to force ourselves through it, essentially doing what Loehr calls “flatlining” like in a hospital, on our deathbeds! We aren’t supposed to power through those emotional times, self-medicating with stimulants, and push away those feelings all the time. Nor should we just give up and allow our self-control to fail. There are ways to have a healthy outlet for when we need to rejuvenate and revive our energy.

Here are some examples: at the end of a long day when you feel tired, instead of collapsing on the couch and watching a show that overstimulates our brains, go to bed. In the middle of the day, when I start to feel sluggish and irritable, instead of sitting at my desk forcing myself to keep working and grab a sugary snack to eat while I work, I could actually pause, take a short walk, drink some water, call a friend, sing a song, or read something funny! Those are examples of healthy ways to recover. The book goes over so many other ways to meet our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs for stress and recovery throughout our day, week, and even year. Allowing ourselves a healthy outlet to recover our thinking brain, or our rational brain gives that part of our brain more power over the feeling part of our brain.

That is what I like about Kristen’s suggestion about our two brains. She says that our thinking brain is actually like a muscle we can develop with practice, rather than a resource that is depleted with excessive use. 

I’m going to take this whole analogy a step further and call our two brains our subconscious brain, and our conscious brain. Our subconscious brain is also sometimes called our “monkey brain” or “raptilian brain” which is basically the same as saying it is our instinctual brain. Without even realizing it, our subconscious brain is always on, always chattering, always telling us what to think, how to react, and what we feel. Our conscious brain is rarely aware of this chatter until we are forced to pause and listen to ourselves. This is rare unless you intentionally plan on taking the time to do this. This is the whole idea behind meditation. 

Meditation is an exercise of strengthening your conscious mind, your thinking brain, or your rational side of your brain. Pausing to meditate and becoming mindfully aware of the chatter going on in your subconscious mind is a practice of learning how to quiet that chatter. 

Here’s an example I read from a book “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart” by Mark Epstein. Epstein described a circumstance when he was studying in India and found himself on a crowded bus. The bus was full of people and farm animals, it was hot and bouncy and smelly, and he was seated on top of the wheel well. He was miserable. In that moment he decided to meditate. He become conscious of the feelings he was experiencing, and opened up his mind to the chatter filling his thoughts. Then, he used the power of his conscious, thinking, rational mind to allow those feelings to pass without reacting to them. He felt himself calming down, noticing what was happening to him but choosing not to react. 

I had this experience once when my little daughter was overreacting to something and was screaming at me. I started to feel the frustration rise inside of me. In that moment, I decided not to react. I paused, focused on my breathing, and noticed how I was feeling but choosing not to react, but allowing the feeling to wash over me and release. My daughter became calm. She decided to get over what ever it was she was frustrated about, and I hadn’t exacerbated the problem by allowing myself to explode. Instead, the situation passed, and we moved on with our day!

Meditation is not always something that has to be done in a quiet room with your legs criss-cross on the floor. Meditation is just mindfulness. Pausing to become present to the moment and allowing yourself to become aware of what is going on in your subconscious, emotional, feeling brain, noticing it, and then allowing it to drift away without reacting to it. 

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This is a practice of self-control. When situations spark our feeling brain, there is a split moment when we have a choice: to react, or to think. When we pause to think, we are strengthening our ability to think rationally, which strengthens our ability to choose. That power of choice is what is so important! We can react, and essentially lose control, or we can think about our actions and make a conscious choice. So, not only does meditation help us strengthen our ability to endure uncomfortable situations longer when necessary, it also strengthens our ability to take control of ourselves in challenging every situation.

It is the ability to quiet the urge to rush back to the kitchen, or pick up our phones, and notice our child’s outstretched arms and pleading eyes asking us to cuddle just a little longer, or read just one more book, or just to pause and become aware of just how tiny or young they are and how fleeting this moment really is. Mindfulness and meditation is about strengthening our ability to truly feel, and not just satisfy urges. It is the ability to truly sense hunger, rather than an emotional urge to satisfy a craving. It is the ability to seek out real love and connection, rather than just a carnal sensation that might give us a spark of delight. Strengthening our conscious, thinking, rational brain is all about being grounded and present to truth, and not just the illusions we create in our minds.

There are lots of ways to learn to slow down, and become present. A great way to start is by connecting with nature, or setting down our phones and delaying picking them up again for as long as we can, or just pausing in a quiet place and listening to our own breathing. Trust me. This is not just new-age, mystical stuff. It is scientifically proven that meditation will heal your brain, and strengthen your mind (among other benefits).

This is a practice I am working on developing. I have been learning about meditation for a few years now, and I still need practice. But, with practice, I am more peaceful, and by extension, my home and family are more peaceful.  As I learn to quiet the chatter and chaos inside my own head, the chaos around me is quieting down, too.

 

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