The Three-Part Brain
Understanding the contribution that different brain areas have on our experience can seem like an overwhelming and complex task. Especially when we learn that there is a two-way relationship between our brain and our environment, in which our experiences shape our brain and bodily systems which in turn influences how we experience the world.
The three-part model of the brain can help us to better understand ourselves and apply findings from neurobiological research to everyday life.
1. The Brain Stem – The Life Sustaining Brain
During human evolution and our own early development, growth of the fundamental life sustaining brain areas is prioritised. Our brain stem grows in the womb and controls our automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate and instinctive responses. It links sensory input with life-sustaining responses (e.g., blinking). This area is continually ready to respond to threat throughout our life span.
2. The Limbic System – The Emotional Brain
The limbic system is the next system to develop and sits on top of the brain stem. This area undergoes rapid development in our first six years and continues to adapt and develop into later life. Sometimes described as the ‘emotional brain’, this system includes many of our non-verbal and feeling memories including information about our relationships. This is where ‘gut feelings’ and traumatic memories are stored. This system initiates the ‘Fight or Flight’ response, which follows a pathway via the brain stem, through the autonomic nervous system to ready our body for action towards escaping danger (LINK).
3. The Prefrontal Cortex – The Thinking Brain
The prefrontal cortex is evolutionary the youngest and is described as the ‘thinking brain’ and it is involved in problem-solving, reasoning, flexible thinking, creativity, language, and memory for facts and events amongst many other functions. This area is vital in establishing and sustaining relationships with others and helps stop us from saying and doing things that may hurt or humiliate others. Whilst the functions of the lower brains are shared with many other animals, this sophisticated thinking is distinctively human. Although sophisticated, these processes are ‘slow’ compared to the ‘fast’ thinking and responses of the lower brains.
Using ‘Three Brain Thinking’ to Improve Wellbeing
Understanding these three areas of the brain can help us bring meaning to our experiences and learn effective ways to respond to ourselves and others. We can expand on this understanding to learn how our brain responds to adversity and trauma as discussed here (LINK). This model can be applied to every-day settings in which we often rely on fast thinking, informed by limbic responses and ‘gut feelings’, to respond quickly to demands and dilemmas. In these instances, we may notice that we quickly jump to conclusions. Learning ways to activate brain areas associated with slower thinking helps us bring a more flexible and thoughtful approach to situations in which fast thinking would not be helpful and slow and creative thinking gives us a real advantage. We may also find ourselves in situations with others when we notice that they are trapped in the limbic-style emotional thinking and it is important to promote flexible and imaginative thinking. Sharing and practicing science-based strategies in these situations, to activate the pre-frontal cortex, helps develop relationships and collaboration. Through incorporating ‘three brain thinking’ into our lives, work, and close relationships we can improve our wellbeing and create possibilities.