Our reactions are instant. They’re driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind. When we say or do something “without thinking,” that’s the unconscious mind running the show. Our reactions are based in the moment and doesn’t take into consideration long term effects of what we say or do. Our reactions are survival-oriented and on some level a defense mechanism. It can turn out okay but often reactions are something we regret later.
Our responses on the other hand usually comes more slowly. They’re based on information from both the conscious and the unconscious mind. A response will be more balanceed, meaning that it takes into consideration the well-being of not only you but those around you. It weighs the long term effects and stays in line with your core values.
We all know the difference between react – response. The point is that the more reacting we do, the less empowered we are
The unconscious biological force
We all react in some form or another. There is a constant fight between the conscious and the unconscious mind. And the unconscious mind often wins. The reason is that we were designed that way. The brain wants to save energy and it takes a huge amount of energy to be conscious all the time, so as soon as possible the brain wants to run on autopilot to preserve energy. If we are we not aware of this, it will affect our lives. Evolutionary psychology suggests thats why tribal behavior arose, because in a tribe members can shift between being alert and being non-alert. We work as a team and in that way save energy and insure survival of the tribe. It’s in our DNA that we are willing to give away our freedom/power to be part of the tribe, to have its protection, to belong. We preserve our energy by collaborating, so from a survival point of view it’s a really good idea. So when we dream about taking rational conscious choices that involves doing something different from the other tribe members norm or behavior we’re really fighting against our own DNA programming.
We are fighting evolution here
The human mind and psychology is a complex thing. We are one big paradox, a mix of machinery build by evolution, patched together through thousands of years. Something build for survival in the ice age, not for a stroll downtown Copenhagen in rush hour.
If we want to focus on our own awareness and consciously being able to adjust and navigate our own lives and mind, we have to understand some of the biological brain patterns, unconsciously driving us.
In the 1960s, Neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated the ‘Triune Brain’ model, which is based on the division of the human brain into three regions. The model suggests the human brain is organized into a hierarchy, which itself is based on an evolutionary view of brain development. However, while this model is a simplification of how our brain works, the concept of a triune brain provides us with a useful way of assessing human analysis of sensory information, and can work as a tool to regulate our selfawareness and response to the world.
The Triune Brain
The reptilian brain
This system of the brain is responsible for the basic survival functions, such as heart rate, hunger, breathing, body temperature. An important point is that the functions of this part of the brain will take precedence over other brain activity. For example, if you hack a hole in the ice and try to jump in you will find that this part of your brain is going to want to take over and make you get out of there. Through awareness and training you may be able to increase the time you are in the water and suppress your urge to get out of the cold water, but at some point your body will eventually give in. Threats to our survival are first addressed by our reptilian brain and will take precedence over other brain functions. One could say – Don’t worry, your body will take over.
The limbic brain
The limbic brain or the emotional brain, is the reactive part of us that can trigger “fight, flight or freeze” response to danger. Key areas are the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. These form a very fast subconscious evaluation and response system designed to keep us safe. The amygdala is an early-warning system that put safety into effect before consulting the thinking brain, neocortex. E.g., you’re driving and suddenly a pedestrian walks into the street in front of you and you hit the brakes without hesitation and without thinking. This is a very important first reaction, because if it were left to the thinking brain, neocortex, to initiate, you would have hit the pedestrian, because a conscious respons would take too long. The amygdala makes very fast, but not always accurate decisions. Stress, fear and trauma can overload the emotional brain to a point were we are not capable of making rational or healthy decisions and are on a constant alert.
The brain was designed to keep us safe from saber-toothed tigers … but it wasn’t designed to keep us safe from saber-toothed tigers every day
Because the limbic brain was designed to keep us safe from saber-toothed tigers it is a master of unconscious fast reactions… but it wasn’t designed to keep us safe from saber-toothed tigers every day. The limbic brain operates only in the present and have no concept of time. That means that everything is happening NOW to the limbic brain. So the limbic brain is shouting DANGER without assessing whether the danger is present or in a couple of days or weeks or months. That means the perceived danger of our modern, stressful lives builds up over time and overloads the limbic brain. So in order to not being overwhelmed, we have to be aware of and able to identify overload.
Managing the limbic brain’s false alarms starts by learning to identify emotional triggers. Triggers are moments when you realize you’re “reacting” to something. You might notice a tightening in your chest or shallow breathing or an increased heart rate. Pay attention to when you notice stress levels rising, and write down the things that cause it. A conscious approach is a way to deal with it and get to the root cause.
Neocortex: The thinking brain
This system is the optimal state for problem-solving and learning. As we learn to regulate and integrate our internal state to be one of relaxed alertness, we are able to access our own optimal state for problem-solving and learning. We are empowered to change and make wise choices. The thinking brain is the part of our system that is responsible for all higher-order conscious activity such as language, abstract thought, selfawareness, imagination, and creativity.
It also houses much of our memory—not just our biographical memory, but all of the automatic memories essential to talking, writing, walking, playing the piano, and countless other activities (keep in mind, the triune brain is a simplified conception: functionally the connectivity between all these regions greatly blurs the boundaries). An integrated conscious state can free us from past conditioning, attunes us to the feelings and experiences of others, enables us to remain focused enough to set and achieve goals, change our behavior and allows us to consciously Respond instead of automatically React to life events.
Training and conscious selfawareness empowers us to be conscious of brain-body states in ourselves. It then provides us with the practical skills we need to manage our thoughts, feeling and actions. We respond instead of react.
How to train to be consciously focused and responding
With the ability to consciously self-regulate, we are able to teach ourself to be aware of and reflect on why or if we are physically aggressive, fearfull, stressed out or verbally aggressive so we can become more responding instead of reacting. When we understand the brain states, we can more clearly navigate our lives, understand our emotions and deal with the world around us, on the core principles of safety, emotional balance and problem-solving.
The key to understanding your mind is to make a buffer between action and reaction. When learning to identify emotional triggers and learning to Respond instead of React, the old saying “Count to 10” is a good example. In a situation where you can sense you are loosing control internally or externally, take a deep breath and trick yourself into staying in conscious control. If that’s not possible, remove yourself from the situation, calm down and continue later. A change of scenery also helps, a walk or a workout. Doing yoga and meditation helps us build up that buffer between reaction and response.
Ask yourself what triggers me, what collapses me? take ownership and explore that emotion. We are wired to learn and problem-solve, so we are able to hack ourselves to respond better and make consciously better choices.
This is how you can try to respond, not react
✔️ Find your present moment, detach, physically step back
✔️ Take three breaths, get control over your breathing
✔️ Look at the beauty around you, smile
Come back to the present moment and RESPOND. We often think that we have to react to everything. Take a moment. Ask yourself, “how do I really feel” and then respond.
Just something to think about.
Ref./ Dahlitz, M. (2016).The Triune Brain, Gould, 2003. LeDoux J. The amygdala. Curr Biol. 2007 Oct 23;17, JNeurosci the journal of neuroscience. Marc Drouin. Circle of life