The amygdala is part of the lower brain system. It has been a part of the human brain for a very long time, and is responsible for regulating survival instincts and the emotions associated with survival — things like stress, fear, anger, passion, attraction, and instantaneous recognition (what could be considered “gut instinct”). The lower brain craves sameness and predictability; it’s much more efficient for the brain to perform habits than it is to constantly be devoting energy to new and novel things.
And then there’s the prefrontal cortex — seen as the seat of the higher brain — and its role in executive function, decision-making, flashes of insight, bursts of innovation in problem solving. It truly is a miraculous evolutionary development in the long history of the human brain.
At first glance, it can be easy to assume that the lower and higher brains as mortal neural enemies, constantly fighting each other for control of our lives, health, and habits — the virtuous impulses of the higher brain constantly being thwarted by the panicky impulses of the lower brain that can short-circuit progress.
But can these two powerful parts of our brains ever play nice? Can they work together?
Research conducted by Dr. Norman Doidge suggests that they can — and that we can use the brain’s own power to change itself to encourage better cooperation between the lower and higher brain.
The brain’s astonishing capability to adjust and change, even in the face of debilitating injury, is often referred to as plasticity or neuroplasticity. Dr. Doidge wrote a book called The Brain That Changes Itself, in which he discusses and documents his years of research on neuroplasticity. In his book, he addresses a phenomenon called sublimation. This is when the high and low brain actually work together and influence each other to create something even better.
Sublimation is often associated with the notion of “civilizing” our more animal instincts. An example can be seen in how we approach competitive sports in our culture. Tens of thousands of years ago, competition was often literally a matter of life and death: our ancestors were looking for food, trying to find the best places to live and hunt and pass on their genes.
Today, we don’t have that kind of survivalist urgency, but our brains still get great pleasure out of the act of competing and winning — they crave that effort and striving, and they send out adrenaline reward chemicals like crazy when we compete for things — even when we’re just watching other people competing.
The plastic brain allows for sublimation. Areas that historically have functioned to carry out hunter-gatherer tasks (like stalking and killing prey) can be sublimated into things like competitive games, since our brains can link two seemingly unconnected things in novel ways to create entirely new things. In this way, neurons from instinctual parts of our brains can play quite nicely with cognitivecerebral parts, influence each other, form new functions, and still release all the reward chemicals of our ancestral habits. As Dr. Doidge notes:
When an instinct, such as stalking prey, is linked up to a civilized activity,
such as cornering an opponent’s king on a chessboard, and the neuronal
networks for the instinct and intellectual activity are also linked, the two
activities appear to temper each other — playing chess is no longer about bloodthirsty stalking, though it still has some of the exciting emotions of the hunt. The dichotomy between “low” and “high” begins to disappear…The low and the high transform each other to create a new whole (p. 297).
As you’re out and about this week, see if you can notice instances of sublimation — or perhaps instances where sublimation would be helpful in cases where lower brain reactions are taking over. Yes, it’s great to know where and when to engage higher brain functioning when old habits aren’t serving you. But how exciting to know that these two parts can also work together when the time is right.
If you’re looking for ways to boost your higher brain function so that it can serve you best, I invite you to check out how Higher Brain Living® could help. I’d love a chance to talk to you and answer your questions! You can contact me at Iam@AwakenAustin.com