Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Rise of the Three Brained Man

Anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I and my entire family are lovers of live theater. In a former life I did a lot of technical work backstage for several productions before finally being lured onstage into the spotlight. My wife and I met while working in a theater production. In addition to this I’ve also worked in positions that required me to deliver presentations to live audiences. As anyone who has ever spent any appreciable amount of time in front of audiences can tell you, sooner or later you will be struck by stage fright. I’ve experienced it. So has Laurence Olivier. That means 1) I’m in good company and 2) susceptibility to stage fright is unrelated to one’s level of talent. Anyway, having personally experienced the feeling of weak knees, perspiration, dry mouth, nausea, shaking, complete and total loss of all memory, and the overwhelming desire to run away simultaneously coupled with the inability to move - it was only natural that an article entitled “Pulling Back the Curtain on Stage Fright” would catch my attention while pursuing MSNBC this morning.

I’ll let you read the article for yourself but the upshot of it is that the source of stage fright is rooted in evolutionary biology. It developed as an instinctive survival mechanism. The quote that drove this point home, that made me stop and think (and laugh out loud) was this one from Mary Fensholt, consultant and author of “The Francis Effect: The Real Reason You Hate Public speaking and How to Get Over It”:

"The fear of public speaking or performing is more than anything a fear of being eaten."

Well, there you go. I know actors who fall to pieces at the thought of a bad review. Talk about tough audiences. And how would you like your actor this evening sir, medium rare?

The theory behind this is that in man’s early days one that stood out from the group was more visible and more accessible, easier to “separate from the herd” if you will, therefore more likely to be taken down and eaten by predators. Let’s face it, back then man was not at the top of the food chain. Constantly stressing over literally being eaten kinda makes your next performance review seem rather insignificant by comparison, doesn’t it? Ever seen a deer or a rabbit come out in the open to eat? Not the most relaxed looking critters in the world are they? Man developed instinctive mechanisms just like theirs to send him into overdrive in order to get himself out of dangerous situations or to fight like crazy if escape wasn’t an option. That’s why it’s called the “Fight or Flight” reflex and it’s still present in us today. Along with several other “instinctive” automatic reactions that can help us…or get us into trouble.

Have you ever noticed that the natural default response of most people is to focus on the negative? In almost everything. I was reminded of this on September 11th when I read several blogs and articles reminding us to try to remember the good that was hidden beneath the tragedy that day rather than focusing on the evil. I’m not remotely denying the presence of evil that day and I’m not trying to minimize the role that evil played. But in the wake of that evil there were some truly amazing acts of good. The heroism, the selfless acts of courage and love, the good ordinary people who stepped up and became extraordinary, the sympathy and kindness from the rest of the world as they reached out to the US and cried with us. This is an extreme example but the tendency is present in all of us and in all aspects of our lives. What’s our biggest complaint about the news? They only ever report the bad, never the good. You get a message that your boss wants to see you in his/her office and you have a flash of “Oh crap! What did I do?” Your kid is late getting home and hasn’t called and the instant assumption is that there’s been an accident. If you’ve been with a spouse for any length of time you tend to forget the things that made you fall in love with them and all you seem to focus on now are the things that drive you out of your mind. Well guess what? It’s another holdover survival instinct. We come preprogrammed to focus on the negative. Even if there is only one negative item surrounded by a dozen positives the negative is what draws our eye. It’s a survival thing that drew our attention to and kept us from getting clubbed by the one angry caveman in the crowd of happy ones. A useful instinct to be sure but it can sometimes keep us from focusing on the good stuff. Good stuff like attraction, love, romance. Well…even these when broken down and analyzed are found to be driven by instincts, chemistry and lower functions in the brain (talk about ruining the mood). How and why you’re attracted to one person but not another has as much to do with subconscious assessments of who is healthier, has better genes, a better immune system, more fertile, will be a better provider, protector, child bearer, etc. than any conscious thoughts you might have. Ah, L’amore.

And where within us, pray tell, do all of these instincts, emotions, reflexes, and reactions originate? Well it seems that almost every part of the body gets credit. “I have a gut feeling”, “He has intestinal fortitude”, “you have a lot of gall”, “Affairs of the Heart”, “That boy’s got a lot of heart”, “Venting your spleen”, “He’s got backbone”, She’s hot-blooded”. Nobody ever puts the credit where it belongs. In the brain. Yep, mission control. Corporate headquarters. The brain.

The general perception is that each of us is walking around with one brain. All of us have known people who gave us cause to question whether they even had half a brain, you know the ones, they usually get promoted or elected to high office. But I’m speaking anatomically so for the sake of discussion let’s assume that we all have one regardless of whether or not it appears to actually be used. Developmentally, we have arrived at the brain we currently have via a very long and winding road. The brain that is now residing in our head is actually three brains layered atop and interconnected with one another. Those three brains are often referred to as the Reptile Brain, the Mammal Brain, and the Reasoning Brain. They all are associated with specific areas, pathways, and functions inside our head.

The Reptile Brain is the oldest and most basic part. It essentially is a small structure that sits on top of your spinal cord and keeps all the automatic systems running. Everything that your body does on autopilot is pretty much controlled here. Your heart beating, breathing, temperature regulation, food digestion, reflexes such as pulling away from a flame or being startled, all preprogrammed and taken care of without you having to think about it. It also runs the basic needs that keep you alive and by extension keep your species alive. Hunger, thirst, sex, fear, self preservation, aggressive behavior, territoriality, etc.

The Mammal Brain was the next to evolve and it’s a structure that we share with all other mammals and even a few birds (hold the bird-brained jokes please). In it resides a complex, interconnected system collectively called the Limbic System, more on that in a minute. Suffice it to say for now that it’s considered the seat of the emotions and of mood, it’s responsible for pain and pleasure, memory and it’s a thermostat of sorts, a regulator of body systems.

The Reasoning Brain was in evolutionary terms the most recent to develop and is present in higher mammals and is most highly developed (though not always used) in humans. Here is where we get our ability for abstract thought, complex communication and language, appreciation for art, ability to strategize and plan, and generally ponder the purpose of the universe and our presence in it.

These three structures, or brains, are not separate and distinct so much as they are a highly connected interdependent system that regulates our bodies and enables us to function and survive. Evolution, rather than tearing down the house and building a bigger one in it’s place just kept building additions to the old one. The new, complex, state of the art wiring was connected to the old basic system. If you’re into computers you can think of it as an Atari Pong, an X-Box, and the Star Trek Holodeck all wired together and somehow managing to work. Things go swimmingly when those systems are in harmony but often they are at odds with each other and we end up with conflict between what we feel and what we think. What we want and what we’ve got, what we should and what we shouldn’t do.

Now, I mentioned the limbic system. The truly interesting thing about the limbic system lies in it’s relationship with the reasoning brain. It connects the higher and lower functions in the brain but it is in the interaction between the mammal brain and the reasoning brain that human consciousness is believed to be. Some even think that this is where the soul resides. Emotion and reason. Together. In balance.

Those old, old instincts that live in the reptile and mammal brain and that I mentioned earlier are still useful to us. While most of us don’t generally have to worry about literally being eaten there is the occasional threat of being clubbed by the modern caveman. Those instincts help us avoid or escape dangerous situations. In less extreme instances they sharpen our senses and improve performance, put us “in the zone” when we need to be. That’s when we force ourselves to step out onto the stage and give the performance of our lives. We get the best benefit from these instinctive reactions when we engage our reasoning brain, recognize what’s happening and use them to our advantage. It’s when we allow them to take over, to rule all of our actions, to paralyze us that they become a problem. That’s when stage fright makes you puke, erases your mind and turns you into a babbling idiot.

From the beginning and every year since the majority of mankind has been trying not to stand out. Trying to avoid the scrutiny of the predator. Always staying close to the herd, following the rest of the flock. Using the mammal brain and living on instinct and reflex. But every so often someone takes the risk and breaks free. Uses the rational brain and dares to think freely. Those are the men and women that have changed history. Those that broke from the flock rose to give us some of our greatest contributions. Those with emotion and reason in balance. The reason to think, to reach, to change and create and the emotion to give them the passion and conviction to succeed.

We need to swallow down that fear and force ourselves to step out of the wings onto the stage. The orchestra has finished playing the overture and the curtain is about to go up. It’s showtime. And nothing's going to eat us.

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