8 Ways to Train Our Primitive Brain—for Life in the 21st Century
David L. Weiner
Our brain has sometimes been called an amalgam of unintelligent design. The theory is that as the brain evolved, the limbic system—the center of our instinctive drives and reactive emotions—simply grew over our original reptilian brain. And then our cortex, which houses our thoughts and creativity, grew over the limbic system. This would be like piling new-generation personal computers on top of older ones and expecting them to work in harmony.
Neuroscientists agree that the limbic system, with its primitive components and neural circuitry, can work quite independently of our intelligence. In many instances, this primitive part of our brains distorts our perceptions, creating irrational fears, anxieties, and biases that can work to sabotage our lives in the workplace and at home.
Here are 8 ways we can retrain our brains to overcome these primitive tendencies.
1. Overcome fear. Brain science now knows that fears and anxieties are chemical reactions triggered in the limbic region of the brain. In the 21st century, this primitive reaction is likely to react to a critical work deadline or a 5-foot golf putt in front of a crowd the same way it would to a wooly mammoth. Such fears are triggered by the amygdala, an almond sized-organ, and anxiety by an even smaller organ, the stria terminalis. You can overcome irrational fears and anxieties by:
· Skill repetition: That’s how athletes learn to perform under intense pressure, and how accomplished public figures battle speaker phobias.
· Disputing irrational thoughts raised by your fears and anxieties. Do it out loud, just as you would argue a point with another person.
· Understanding that your feelings come from two organs that work on automatic and have no sense of time, awareness, or logic.
2. Be efficient. Your brain is handling multiple stimuli from external sources as well as internal, undisciplined thoughts. Research shows, however, that you can only have one thought at a time. Knowing this, you can:
· Cut off an obsessive, interfering thought by focusing on the task at hand. Get lost in it.
· For multi-taskers, put your daily to-do list on small Post-its, and work on one task at a time, changing the priorities as necessary by shifting the notes.
3. Positively reinforce. The brain’s social dominance system wants us to create a pecking order—great for cavemen, not great in an egalitarian society. After a defeat, this system encourages us to back away by lowering the serotonin in our brains and making us feel as if we belong at the bottom of the pecking order. Neuroscience has confirmed that positive thinking works to raise serotonin levels, and thus our confidence. Try this:
· After a confidence-crushing setback, create a positive thought ritual: Write down, and post where you can see them, five positive thoughts, such as: “I can do this.” “I am smart.” “People respect me.” And so on.
· If you feel demeaned, customize the above ritual to the situation. For example, you received five job evaluations, but one was bad. The bad one can trump the good ones and lower your confidence, when it should be raised. Write: “I had four great evaluations,” “I will not let one bad one upset me.” “I know I am good at this job.” And so on.
4. Use it or lose it. The neuronal circuits of the brain will literally grow new connections, the key to enhanced mental and physical capabilities. But you need to strain your brain for these connections to grow, much like weightlifters do with muscles. Use spare time, such as airplane rides, to read reference materials targeted to your endeavors. Research shows that such connections will dissipate if you stop pushing yourself.
5. Gain small victories. Meeting or exceeding expectations triggers our dopamine reward system, making us feel happy. Failure triggers the anterior cingulate region that causes mental as well as physical pain. Reinforce positivity by going for smaller, easier-to-achieve victories, and then work you way up.
6. Take bigger risks. The brain wants us to play it safe. It wants us to survive in good health and reproduce to carry our genes into the next generation. When weighing the big risks, understand that the amygdala, the stria terminalis, and our confidence system may distort our outlooks. Don’t ignore them altogether, but focus hard on the risk-versus-reward scenario before deciding to back off from a challenge.
7. Eschew rigid, hierarchal groups. Our primitive social dominance system creates a “status imperative,” a chemical brew that encourages us to form and join groups that thrive on brutal power hierarchies and exclusionism. Once needed for survival, the status imperative is now the cause of wars, discrimination, and hate. Put down your tribal colors and seek out groups that are harmonious and collegial.
8. Take the high road. Our amygdala not only mediates fear, but when stimulated, it can trigger the neural circuits that create anger and feelings of revenge. This was a great system when we lived in caves and needed strong reactive emotions for survival, but today the system can cause irrationality. When you encounter a rude, power-crazed co-worker or an enraged motorist you’ve mistakenly cut off, practice rationality and take the high road. If another is working to undermine you, be assertive but not aggressive. Don’t make it personal.
Unlike a computer, we can’t get into our brains with a screwdriver to make adjustments. The adjustments need to come from designed thoughts and action. In the last twenty years, neuroscience has found that the brain is more plastic than previously thought. We can step out of our caves with a bit of hard work.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Weiner is author of several psychology best-sellers, including his most recent, Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows, but Isn’t Telling You (Prometheus, 2005). Weiner serves on the external board of the Health Emotions Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin. He is also founder and CEO of Marketing Support, Inc., a $100-million, Chicago-based brand-marketing agency. Read more about him at www.realitycheckbook.com.