Being of Three Minds

We humans tend to think of ourselves as one person with one mind, one brain, and one personality. The trouble is that we don’t always act like it. We find ourselves confused and befuddled by our conflicting desires and impulses. We get stuck in self-defeating habits. We know why we should not do something, but we do it anyway. Or we know why we should do something, but we don’t.

One reason we are less unified than we might like to be is that we have three different systems of logic working in three separate brain systems. In an article called “The 3 Logics of the Brain,” Patricia Berne and Louis Savary described how the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex each have their own kind of logic.

The brain stem, which sits at the top of the spinal cord in the lower part of the skull, uses Kinesthetic Logic. It is all about approaching pleasure and avoiding pain. If one sees a piece of good tasting food, the brain stem’s message is, “Go over there and eat it.” It is not the part of the brain that says, “Hold on there, that’s not on my diet plan.” That would be your cerebral cortex talking. The cerebral cortex, your gray matter, can use Linear Logic. This is were we weigh the pros and cons of a situation. We think it through, develop concepts and make plans.

The third logic style is called Limbic Logic. It is the mode of the limbic system, which is like the core of the brain. Down there below the folds of your cerebral cortex we have such structures as the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. They are in charge of emotions.

The limbic system works by association. You might remember when Mommy made you a birthday cake. It tasted so good. You felt so loved in that moment. Your limbic system  associated love with cake. Being loved is innately good, so your limbic system reasons that cake must be good too then. Your brain stem tells you to go over and look at the cake and put it in your mouth. Your limbic system tells you it is good. Your cerebral cortex assesses the costs and benefits, and plans how you can have some according to the rules of civilized behavior. Or it figures that eating high calorie sweets at this time is not in your best interest and develops a plan for what to do. It may negotiate with your brain stem and limbic system, so that you can have a small piece, or have it later or trade future exercise for present indulgence.

Our brain stem keeps us alive and interested by being attracted to certain things that are pleasant and repelled by other things that are not. Our limbic system helps us out by learning what is likely to be safe or pleasant or not, and gives us emotions that cue us as to how to respond. The cerebral cortex judges, evaluates, plans, creates images of the future, and gives us the power to overrule the brain stem and limbic urges.

If we understand that different parts of our brain are working with different logics we can use that information to manage our brain and our behavior more effectively. For instance, if you know that there is something that you are attracted to that is bad for you, you can help out your brain stem by avoiding the stimulus for approaching that thing. The recovering alcoholic would stay away from liquor, the places where it is served and the people who will tempt him or her to drink. The problem gambler would drive home from work by a route that doesn’t pass by the favorite gambling place. The over-eater would avoid walking down the ice cream aisle at the grocery store, or would direct his or her eyes to the other side of the aisle where the frozen vegetables are. Avoiding the stimulus helps the brainstem from triggering approach and consumption behaviors.

The limbic system deals in emotion and works by association, so we need to develop skills for managing our emotions by easing our fears of things that would actually be good for us and by getting positive emotions behind behaviors that move us toward that which is good for us. If you determine that the ability to speak in public would help you meet your goals, but it scares you, you need to work with your limbic system. You need to find ways to calm it down, and you need to have some successes with public speaking that associate it with good feelings. Small but persistent steps can be the key. So can the words you say to yourself. Self-talk generates emotion, so whether you scare yourself or encourage yourself is largely determined by what you say to yourself. Talk nice to yourself to overcome fear.

 The cerebral cortex with its ability to reason, imagine, and plan is like the driver of a car. The brain stem, to push the metaphor a little too far, is like the transmission and drive train. It determines if you will go forward or backward. The amygdala of the limbic system is like the accelerator. It gets the emotions going—revving up fear, anger, or desire, which stimulate movement. If we are going to get to where we want to go, we need to be a good driver. We need to use our cerebral cortex to manage and guide the other systems. We can train it to be more judicious in applying the brakes. We can map our course and sometimes even stop and ask for directions.
Mindfulness is a way to become more aware of the different processes going on in your mind. Try being more aware of the impulses and logics of your brain. Notice how the kinesthetic logic of the brain stem draws you toward objects of desire or urges you away from what you fear.

Observe your emotions, the domain of the limbic system. Notice how the limbic mind associates one thing or experience with another or with another emotion or idea. Observe how your self-talk affects your emotional responses. Don’t be afraid to alter your self-talk to serve yourself better.

Observe your thinking mind. Witness the thoughts as they come and go and recognize how habitual they may be. Use your executive functions to modify unwholesome habits and reinforce healthy habits. Study. Gain skills. Practice.

 Reference:  Patricia Berne and Louis Savary, “The 3 Logics of the Brain,” Psychotherapy Networker,28 (September/October, 2004).

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© 2008 Tom Barrett