The human brain can be very roughly divided into three parts. (Please note that all neuroscience in this post has been very simplified. Brains are much, much more complicated than this.)
The most recently evolved area of the brain, the neocortex, is what we usually think of as our ‘brain’: intellect, ego, conscious thought.
The oldest of these structures is the lizard brain that was the subject of the last post, the basal ganglia and amygdala. It evolved long before mammals came around, and is responsible for keeping us alive.
The intermediate structure of the brain, the limbic system, is responsible for emotion (among many other functions).
I refer to this system as the inner monkey.
The inner monkey is far more advanced than the inner lizard. The monkey understands that survival is not only a matter of how much food you stockpile and how careful you are around tigers, but that for us survival depends on our ability to form connections within our group.
The monkey is the pack animal. The monkey is the part of us that is attracted to drum circles, that likes uniforms and wants our team to win. The monkey is what wants to just die when we find ourselves at a strange synagogue and find ourselves up standing up while everyone else sits down.
There can be downsides to being guided only by the monkey, some of which are very well described out in Tim Urban’s Wait But Why post Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think.
But there are also serious problems with ignoring the monkey, and I think as a society we tend to lean more to the side of neglect when it comes to our monkey friend.
We can’t ignore our thoughts. Most of us even think our thoughts are us. As a society we value thought, intellect, problem solving, using our heads.
We can’t ignore the lizard. It won’t let us. The lizard has pain on its side.
But the monkey, our feelings, our emotions, our need to form connections with other human beings in person rather than stay in watching Netflix every night like we would really rather be doing…. The monkey is too easy to overlook. And when it is neglected, while it might not be able to cause physical pain like the lizard, it can have just a strong an effect on our quality of life.
Sadness, anxiety, irritability, fatigue…. These can all be our monkey’s way of calling for help. Of trying to get its needs (our needs) met. Next time you find yourself feeling an upsetting emotion that you can’t understand, try checking in with your monkey. See if you have been treating yourself as a primate and not just as an efficiency machine. Even better, maybe take a minute or two to check in with how you are really feeling without waiting for a painful wake-up call.
For more (easy and well explained) information about how these three systems interact, you can check out this video from Big Think:
Coming up next: Mindful Eating (and Junk Food)
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