Triune Brain – The Evolutionary Design
by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
According to neuroscience, our brain design is a three-fold design based on our human evolutionary journey. Simply put we have a three layered brain or “Triune Brain”. The rear most and oldest evolved part of the 3 layered brain is called the “Reptilian brain”, and has a primary role in managing the arousal machinery of the human condition (Carter:2001). This brain then relates closely to the middle “limbic” brain which has a key function of emotional interpretation functions, and together they function within us to organise our responses to sensory stimulus, with all responses having a body involvement and movement component.(Siegel:2006).
It is the reptilian and limbic brain segments that directly relate to working with energy. It is from these two brain centres that our unconscious mind is comprised. The pre-frontal lobes are the most recent evolutionary brain segment in humans, and provide us with our logical, reasoning, thinking, logic forming, and free-will choice making aspects of consciousness. It is the “conscious logical brain” .
The three brain system importantly is now understood to broadly “push” information forward from the body into the oldest Reptilian brain segment, then into the Limbic middle segment, and then forward to the pre-frontal rational brain. Neuroscience shows us that neural pathways are predominately arranged to process in this direction, and Daniel Seigel(1999:60) notes there are few pre-frontal brain neural connections feeding information the other way. That simply means not a lot of the conscious, rational cognition processes feed significant or permanent information backwards into the Limbic or Reptilian brains, from where Neuroscience is indicating that changing one’s unconscious beliefs, patterns, reactions and related healing must have a primary focus.
This is why “talk therapies” have been a relative failure in dealing with creating permanent change in the deep seated unconscious mind, notes (Van Der Kolk:2002). Van Der Kolk notes it simply is not the role of a rational executive pre-frontal brain to engage in any form of psychotherapy or counselling which will “squelch sensations, control emotional arousal, and change fixed action patterns(2006:xx)”. The prominent Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio(1999:21), notes that “we use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them”. Trauma researcher and Neuroscientist Bessel Van Der Kolk argues that “neither Cognitive Behavioural Therapy(CBT), nor Psychodynamic psychotherapy pay much attention to the experience and interpretation of physical sensations and pre-programmed physical action patterns.... and the best that verbal therapies can offer is to help people inhibit the Autonomic Nervous System(ANS) physical actions that their emotions provoke. In short the best verbal therapies can help people with ‘anger management’ such as in counting to ten and taking deep breaths”(2006:xxiii).
Van Der Kolk then further argues that from this understanding we must look to a form of healing that involves the body and the reprogramming the Autonomic Nervous System(ANS) physical responses, involving utilising the body as a key means of having the client develop awareness of their internal sensations and physical action patterns. Body-Mind psychotherapy is one of the Western therapeutic modalities that does not operate solely from a “talk therapy” model, but which instead works holistically with the mind, the body, and all 3 brain layers in the healing processes it uses. The bottom line is that consciousness changing therapy must arouse the motoric and emotional sensations in the body in order to engage the two rearmost reptilian and limbic brain centres, from where healing can then be initiated into a body-mind context. The various “talk therapies” are pre-frontal brain focused and cannot scientifically be supported in claims that they can alone effect permanent change(Van Der Kolk:11).
Triune Brain Summary
THE innermost REPTILIAN BRAIN (the instinctual or “dinosaur” brain):
The oldest part of your brain, the reptilian system can be found at the base of your brain stem, and regulates basic bodily functions – heart rate, breathing, etc. This is the part of your brain that instinctively reacts when you experience a sudden and unanticipated stimulus – BOO!
THE LIMBIC BRAIN (emotional or “feeling” brain):
The second oldest part of your brain – the limbic – is where two very powerful kinds of media (images and music) are processed.
You know the old saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words”?
True enough – because pictures bypass the “thinking brain” and go directly to the emotional/limbic system.
The same is true of music – you can literally alter your neuro-physiological chemistry by putting on the right piece of music.
Feeling depressed? Then put on your “feel good” music and within minutes, you’ll notice a change.
THE NEOCORTEX (rational or “thinking” brain):
This is the youngest part of the brain, and is located in the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, more or less. All higher level thinking - reading, writing, etc. – takes place in the neocortex.
Ever wonder why reading a book is initially so much harder than watching television? Because TV is processed in the limbic and reptilian brains, while the printed word (typography) is processed in the neocortical brain.
The Energetics Institute has designed bodymind programmes incorporating the bodymind traditions of Somatic Therapy, Yoga, Mindfulness, Meditation, CBT, Human Biology, Neuroscience, and the Bioenergetic understanding of the body and mind. The clinical effect has been to firstly create a tailored range of exercises which address and intervene into the bodymind, activating the Reptilian and Limbic brain processes. The exercises result in the creation of the relaxed and beneficial Parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous system state, as well as taking a person from “out of their head”, and into a truly embodied state, where the person is present and primarily free from distracting thoughts and anxieties.
From this safe and grounded place, and being in present time, we start to work with a person to resource them with states and sensations needed for addressing any psychodynamic considerations arising from old original dynamics, abuse or trauma creating incidents via Analytical and Behavioural Bodymind Psychotherapy. This work directly deals with distorted perceptions, realities, and patterns of events and behaviours which are often both the triggers and underlying basis for repeated bouts of disappointments and negative outcomes in life.
I personally advocate some Buddhist techniques in my work with clients. The use and teaching of states of Mindfulness, breathing meditation, aware ego compassion practices, and creating resources of safety and refuge via visualisation of protector environments and entities, all assist in the therapeutic work. These practices are also congruent to working with the Reptilian and Limbic brain processes, and stem from my own realizations from 20 years of personal Tibetan Buddhist practice.
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