The Reptilian Brain

Three Brains in One
Instinct, Emotion, Intellect

In developing our workshops on sustainability (for example, MASH), SSC has emphasized connections at many levels: with each other, with what sustainability means, and to a larger context. We have found information about the brain's anatomy and function offers an explanation of why these connections are so critical to our understanding as well as how we present them.

Current research on the human brain by Dr. Paul MacLean, evolutionary neuroanatomist and senior research scientist at National Institutes of Mental Health, has revealed that the human brain consists of three parts which have distinct, but interrelated, functions. MacLean dubbed it "triune," tri for three, une for one, the Three-in-One Brain.

Neocortex - Thought (including planning, language, logic & will, awareness)

Limbic System - Emotion (feelings, relationship/nurturing, images and dreams, play)

Reptilian Brain - Instinct (survival, breathing/swallowing/heartbeat, startle response)

These three parts of the brain intermingle and communicate, sometimes like a contentious committee. The Neocortex likes to think it is in the driver's seat, but the Limbic System and Reptilian brain exercise a lot of power. The Reptilian brain, by far the oldest and simplest, is responsible for our survival, but its choices are limited.

Instinctual options when confronted with a threat to survival:

(only recently recognized along with the first two)

When any living being experiences a threat to its survival, the organism generates enormous physiological energy to mobilize in response to the threat. When that energy is not used, it can become locked up or frozen in the nervous system. Medically this is known as trauma. You might also know it as burnout or psychic numbing. Trauma impairs the healthy and creative functioning of living beings.

Research on animals in the wild shows that they frequently encounter threats to their survival, but they don't experience trauma. They discharge the energy through physical movement and through re-playing, literally playing, the events of the threat and their escape. Unfortunately, humans seem to have trouble discharging our energy in the face of danger.

Why don't we humans discharge our energy after a threat and avoid trauma? Perhaps because the threat seems unceasing and ever increasing. Perhaps it is because cultural messages have conditioned us to believe that "fight" is the only heroic option and have shamed us into believing that flight and especially freeze are cowardly. Psychological research shows that trauma is more likely to occur when the intense emotions accompanying threatened survival are linked with a sense of powerlessness, helplessness and/or humiliation.

Why does this matter? Many in the Sustainability movement believe that the current state of affairs on our planet poses a threat to our survival as a species which has caused many people to become frozen and overwhelmed. MASH incorporates cutting edge trauma research as a tool for unfreezing energy and ending the paralysis of cultural trauma.

The Trauma Vortex and The Counter Vortex of Healing

In his book, Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, Peter Levine (Ph.D. in medical & biological physics (UC Berkeley) and also Ph.D. in psychology) uses the metaphor of a river flowing between two banks to describe our life energy. A threat to survival causes a rupture in the river bank, and water (life energy) rushes out, creating a whirlpool or what he calls a trauma vortex. The trauma vortex diverts life energy that might otherwise be available for all manner of productive, enjoyable activity. Luckily, Levine asserts, nature has an antidote and will set up a counter vortex for healing (essentially, a whirlpool spinning in the opposite direction). The counter vortex provides positive feelings and images to the traumatized individual, whose task is to gradually integrate positive energy with the trauma energy, weaving back and forth to bring the centers of the two energy vortices together and cancel them out so life energy can return to normal flow and survival needs can be met.

The Trauma Vortex

Unfreezing Trauma, Empowering Action

The MASH workshop is a work-in-progress that is evolving to take advantage of all aspects of our triune brain, to awaken and harness all the possible resources each of us may bring to the task of healing our Earth, consciously or unconsciously, intellectually, emotionally and instinctually. We encourage participants to approach the workshop with an open mind, to experience it, not just watch it.

The MASH workshop speaks to the neocortex with information on The Natural Step and the Ecological Footprint, on Cultural Creatives and The Great Turning. The workshop engages the limbic system through games, feelings exercises, imaginative visioning and even singing. Gently weaving back and forth between trauma vortex and healing vortex, the MASH workshop offers participants an opportunity to look at the threat to our survival and also generate positive healing images and feelings so that the Reptilian brain is not overwhelmed and frozen.


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