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