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Soulful Sundays: Two Brains

"There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse. “You are so lucky!” his neighbors told him, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you.” “Maybe,” the farmer replied. One day he didn’t latch the gate properly and the horse ran away. “Oh no! That is terrible news!” his neighbors cried. “Such bad luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied. A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses. “How fantastic! You are so lucky,” his neighbors told him. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The following week the farmer’s son was breaking-in one of the wild horses when it threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. “Oh no!” the neighbors cried. “Such bad luck, all over again!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next day soldiers came and took away all the young men to fight in the army. The farmer’s son was left behind. “You are so lucky!” his neighbors cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied...." And on and on it goes.

Humans are notoriously short-sighted creatures. This is in large part due to the dominant role that emotions play in our decision making. For a not-so-short primer on this topic I would encourage everyone to read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow in which he details the two operating systems of the human brain. The "fast brain" acts rapidly on emotions and heuristics while the "slow brain" must consider probabilities and long-term modeling. The former is our preferred way to navigate in the world. It is expedient, strong willed, and, in most cases, surprisingly accurate. However, it often causes us to jump to conclusions that may not be supported by facts.

Evolutionarily speaking, the so-called fast brain was essential to survival. Acting on incomplete information rapidly and living was preferable to not acting at all and getting eaten. It has really only been in the last 10-20 million years of evolution that the prefrontal cortex (the slow brain) has come online in humans and primates, but it is more of a puppet to the emotional centers of the brain (the fast brain) than most of us realize. Consider this, medical patients who have unfortunately had their limbic system (the origin of emotions) severed from the rest of their brain are simply incapable of making decisions of any kind. Emotions are the prime movers for vertebrate functioning and desire. So how can we better understand them?

Our emotional sphere is a bit of a black box. Inputs don't always create predictable outputs. We know that our emotional temperament is shaped in the womb and in early development, which means that it is largely a reflection of our parents' emotional states, but we also know that as we hit puberty and early adulthood another reshaping occurs. This is when the prefrontal cortex becomes more active and humans become more self-aware. Self-awareness is a kind of internal regulating system for the limbic system. It allows us to edit some of the emotional content of our brains in a controlled fashion. However, emotions will play trump to logic in all but the most trained minds when we are faced with some kind of immediate survival pressure.

This emotional override function, if you will, is why most forms of traditional therapy fail when it comes to addressing traumatic experiences. When the patient is forced to confront their trauma they enter a fight-or-flight state and lose access to their self-awareness. And this doesn't just happen in the therapy room. Think of the last time that you got in a fight with a loved one. Did you engage in a civil, fact-filled debate, or was it riddled with emotional landmines and ambushes? Our feelings are there to protect us, but in finding the appropriate answers to life's questions, reflection, experimentation, and compromise are all equally important in aiding our emotional core.

When I come face to face with difficult situations, people, and decisions, I like to remind myself to "not believe everything that I think." There are so many unknowns surrounding major life choices--career, family, religion, and health beliefs--that we are guaranteed to make mistakes somewhere. First, finding patterns of action that produce predictable results is key to thinking more with the slow brain. Next, see if you can find the emotional states that drive said actions. If the pattern is not something that you wish to repeat, change the action. If you are unable to change the action, then your emotional center is playing trump card and must be further understood. I recommend working with a trusted mentor, therapist, or energy worker to gain outside perspective. Finding a community that will listen and support you through your process is also a plus. An open, curious mind and a habit of introspection are also helpful.

Learning new ways to interact with our emotions and thoughts necessitates some level of discomfort. It is the letting go of the attachments to our old patterns. We must embrace the stress if we are to gain control of our lives. There can be no progress without some level of risk. The Chinese farmer from the parable understood this. With each passing gift and omen he remained neutral. At the helm of his emotional landscape, ready to take on what came next.

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