The Parts of the Brain
There are two important parts of your brain.
The first is your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all our higher-level thinking, problem-solving, and complex communication. All of our reason and logic is also found here. The prefrontal cortex is what separates us from animals. It’s also the part that’s not fully developed in toddlers, which is why they’re more prone to tantrums and emotional outbursts. Simply put, their brain aren’t wired yet with self-discipline and self-control.
When working with children, therapists often call the prefrontal cortex “the owl brain.” It’s wise, and it solves all our problems.
The second part of your brain that’s important for today is the amygdala. It is home to our reflexes and instincts. Its sole responsibility is keeping us alive. The amygdala is like a guard dog. It is constantly scanning for danger. Usually this happens subconsciously. But when it sees something threatening, it alerts our body. Therapist describe this by saying that the guard dog is “barking.” When the guard dog part of our brain begins barking, it fuels our body with adrenaline, giving us the ability to fight, fly, or freeze.
Now, both parts of our brain are good and useful. They each have their role, and for the most part, they work well together.
But here’s what you need to know: The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala cannot give us signals at the same time.
In other words, when the dog starts barking the owl flies away.
Usually, this is fine. We don’t need to know how many stripes are on a tiger (an upper brain activity) in order to run away (a lower brain activity.) Our higher brain will “shut off” in order for the adrenaline to fuel us toward safety.
But sometimes the guard dog brain is wrong. It may bark at something it perceives as dangerous, when in reality, we are safe. I call these perceived dangers “shadows.”
It is problematic for the guard dog brain to bark at shadows, because when it barks, our owl brains are not able to function at the level we need them to. When this happens, we lose access to our higher-level thinking like communication, problem solving, abstract thinking, and more.
The Four Types of Shadows
Sensations in Our Bodies
The first type of shadow that may cause the guard dog brain to bark inappropriately is sensations in our body. When we are hungry, tired, sick, or in pain, our guard dog brain may bark. This is what is happening when someone is “hangry.” In essence, the guard dog brain is saying, “We’re hungry, and being hungry puts our survival at risk. I better bark.”
So it barks, and the owl brain flies away. Then when our coworker asks a stupid question, we’re much more likely to reply with a impatient remark. Our ability to communication respectfully and patiently has been impeded by the overruling signal from the amygdala.
Have you ever shouted a curse word when you stubbed a toe? It’s the same science happening.
The pain in your foot triggers your lower brain. The self-control you usually exhibit with your language is unavailable while the dog is barking.
Stepping Outside Our Comfort Zone
The second shadow is stepping outside our comfort zone. I have a dog. She lives within our fenced yard. But when I take her on a walk, even if we’re only a few feet outside the fence, she stops to sniff everything. Our guard dog brain operates the same way when we step outside our familiar “fenced yards.” Our guard dog brains say, “Whoa. This is new. Let’s be careful.”
It’s important to note that whether the comfort zone is changing for the better or for the worse, the guard dog may still bark. Many people experienced this with the recent stimulus checks. If I am accustomed to having $1,000 in my bank account, and suddenly I have $5,000, I am outside my comfort zone. This may cause the guard dog to bark. While the owl brain might want me to do something mature and reasonable, like save the money or pay off debt, those decisions become much more difficult when the guard dog is barking, and I may splurge on silly, unimportant things. The guard dog brain is not nearly as good at finances as the owl brain.
The third shadow that causes the guard dog to bark is overwhelming emotions. Similar to the shadow our of comfort zones, “positive” and “negative” emotions can make the dog bark. If I’m running late, and I’m stressed, I’m far more likely to yell at my kids when they’re slow to get in the car. My communication has been negatively affected by the guard dog barking.
Likewise, think of a winner on a game show who is so excited that he or she cannot speak. The overwhelming excitement has inhibited her ability her high-brain and its signals to speak. Frustrated? Stressed? Angry? Excited? Embarrassed? Flattered by an unexpected compliment? This can make your lower brain bark.
The last shadow is past events. This is what is happening when we are triggered. If I am in a car wreck when it’s raining, the next time I’m in the car and it’s raining, my guard dog brain might bark. “Be careful,” it says. “Last time this was scary and dangerous and threatened our survival.”
But when I’m driving in the rain, what I need is my owl brain and its ability to solve complex problems, focus, and remain calm.
Overriding the Lower Brain
Now that we know this, let’s talk about how to override the lower brain.
It’s best to address the signal its sending rather than ignore it. Like a toddler, the lower brain often gets louder and louder if it senses its being ignored.
Remember, you do not have to respond to the signals your brain is sending. One of the easiest ways to acknowledge the signal without acting on it is to say, “Thank you, brain. I hear your signal, but our owl brain will solve this one.”
It’s also helpful to be able to tell ourselves, “That’s just my lower brain, and it’s barking because I am hungry, or lost in a new city, or mad at my close friend. I’m not actually in danger.”
Lastly, when you feel the overwhelming emotion from the adrenaline the lower brain sends, ask yourself, “Am I in immediate physical danger, or is this just a shadow?” Or in other words, “Is this a problem for my lower brain, or should I activate my higher brain instead?”
Now that we know all this about our brain, how can this be useful in our writing?
Remember, everything about writing requires our upper brain. From the imagination to dream up stories to the skills it takes to sit down and actually type out words. Our ability to dream and write and create will be significantly decreased when we are operating from our lower brain.
The next time you’re feeling a writer’s block or a lack of motivation, listen carefully to your thoughts and see if you can determine whether they’re coming from your higher brain or your lower brain. If it’s your dog, take some time to do some self-care and get it calm again so you can write the words the world needs to read.
Knowing how our brain works and how to hack its signals is one of the best ways to regain control over our actions to fuel us forward to our goals.
What shadows make your lower brain bark? How are you going to shift to your higher brain during those situations? Let me know!