Your brain has many different parts and components. There are people who dedicate their entire lives to understanding tiny parts of it.
Luckily for you I know everything there is to know about everything so let me school you on the brain that is reading and interpreting these words. And if that doesn’t freak you out…the brain named itself. That is a rabbit hole down which there is no returning.
Naming the brain
Back in the 1960s a neuroscientist called McLeod came up with a way to describe the different parts of the brain. What follows is a simplified version of how our brain is constructed.
Simplified as it is, it does give us an insight into how we make decisions. Specifically, it gives us insight into the decisions we make even when we don’t want to make that decision. You know what I’m talking about. You have the take away app open at 7:30pm on a Friday, kids are asleep, your finger is hovering…*repeat order*….*confirm*…. your delivery will be with you in 30 minutes. The whole time you’re thinking ‘I have a fridge full of food, why did I just do that?’
That is the fight between the rational and emotional brain.
The rational part of your brain knows there is a fridge full of food, but the emotional brain does not care. The emotional brain is a cruel, cruel master. Emotionless you might say!
Who are you calling a lizard brain?
The proper names for these parts of the brain are the limbic system (emotional brain) and the neocortex (rational brain).
There is a third part of your brain called the reptilian complex and that is where our genius begins. It is called the reptilian complex because we share it with reptiles. Those reptiles are cold hearted bastards. And the reason they are so devoid of emotions is because they are not capable of emotions. They will eat their own offspring if there is nothing else around.
This part of the brain that we share with lizards and fire breathing dragons etc. is only for basic computations. It controls some incredibly important systems in our bodies. It regulates temperature. One thing it takes care of is our fight or flight mode. To give you an example of this:
You are walking down a dark alleyway late at night and you hear footsteps behind you. Convinced you are about to be killed you begin to go into fight/flight mode. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your muscles tense. This is a horrible feeling but it’s possibly a familiar feeling to you.
This is that reptilian complex kicking in to keep you safe. It floods your body with adrenaline to prepare you for the inevitable fight or flight.
Can lizard’s cook? How the reptile brain affects how we learn.
Imagine if you are in the grips of a situation such as this and you try to remember the recipe for a hollandaise sauce.
It is a completely different part of your brain and there is absolutely no way you can get there without the reptilian complex agreeing to it. This reptile brain is at the top of your spine and the bottom of your head. It is about the size of a walnut.
What is interesting is the part that surrounds the reptilian complex. It is called the emotional brain. Would you like to take a guess what this part of the brain does? That’s right, this is the part of the brain that considers the flavour of ice cream you are going to get at the cinema.
I am only kind of joking. The emotional part of the brain is just that. It controls your emotions. It also stores your long-term memories. Think about any long-term memory you have. It has a dominant emotion connected to it. Therefore, any long term memory you have will induce an emotion of some description. Your wedding day, where you were on 9/11. But I bet you can’t remember what you had for lunch this day last year.
Chances are you can’t remember because there is no emotion connected to it. If it was a particularly tasty sandwich, you might remember it otherwise it is lost to the ether.
No emotion, no memory.
This emotional brain is also known as the limbic system. The emotional brain is difficult to control but we are at least aware of it. The reason the emotional brain is difficult to control is because this is where all our previous decisions are hardwired.
If every Friday evening after work you order a take away even though you know consciously afterwards you are going to regret your decision you do it anyway. This is because the emotional brain is in control. The rational part of your brain is screaming out for a logical thought process but your emotional brain is louder and it is screaming ‘I want that curry sauce!’ Emotional brain wins every single time.
We’re agreed, we have 3 brains
We have 3 brains for the price of one. What has this got to do with being at the shop and buying white bread and vintage cheese that we know we shouldn’t be eating? Well for one it tells us how little control we have over the decisions we make when we are not giving conscious control to the neocortex.
How do we do it? We must build good habits. We must ensure that we stack the deck to suit us. We must ensure that we are giving ourselves a fighting opportunity to win against the marketeers who want us to make the impulsive decisions to buy a pair of shoes we don’t need. If we rely on willpower we will lose.
Your decision – making matrix
People make decisions emotionally first and then back it up with logic afterwards. We can even sometimes complete the transaction this way and then afterwards switch the memory around so that we think we made a logical decision and fell in love with the sweatshirt/shoes/video game afterwards.
We are emotional beings more than most will ever realise. When you arrive in the store to buy rice cakes and go home with cream cakes you will tell yourself some nonsense about why it is ok just this one time. At least that’s what I tell myself.
My weapon of choice is a coffee slice. If you do not know what a coffee slice is, I feel sorry for you. It is a crumbly pastry with too much cream, a layer of jam and then a lid of pastry with coffee flavoured icing on top.
Will power is useless. All the rationalising in the world is useless. All the telling yourself ‘Buy the healthy stuff’ is a hairdryer fighting off a tornado. Sometimes it makes it even worse when you give yourself all of the rational reasons.
You just feel naughty.
You feel like you are getting away with something. The bottom line is that we are not in control of the part of the brain that makes most of our decisions.
This can be a difficult thing to understand because the question then becomes, well if I’m not in control then who is? Well maybe I am being a little bit dramatic. It is still you in control but when you consciously try to decide and fail to make the right decision it is because of habits and emotions. The emotional brain is making the decision based on decisions it has made before.
To learn more about the 3 brains, have a listen to The Chimp Paradox and then sign up to a free trial of the Tribel platform so that you can remember and deliberately practise the key takeaways from this article and The Chimp Paradox.