Triune Brain theory can give many answers to people who started to connect the dots about why they get angry or emotional. It certainly connected many dots in my life, and so I must share this brain functioning explanation with you.
A neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean was the person who revealed this theory after years of research in 1960s. He proposed that our brain was not one, but three interconnected brains, each one representing a distinct evolutionary step and each one possessing its own intelligence.
Each brain is connected to one another by the nerves and operates with a distinct intelligence, subjectivity, and memory. Emotion and thought, therefore, comes from two different but inter-connected brains – limbic brain (emotion) and neocortex (conscious thought).
Paul MacLean disproved the brain theory popular at his time stating that the highest brain, neocortex, was always in charge. He arrived at the conclusion that the two lower brains, limbic and reptilian, can take over in certain cases, like when a person is scared. That’s when the person starts acting on auto-pilot.
MacLean’s three-brain theory was also in harmony with spiritual teachings of some traditions, which assigned the neocortex to the Spirit, limbic brain to the Soul, and reptilian brain to the Body.
The reptilian brain
The reptilian brain is the oldest one, the primitive brain. In animals such as reptiles this brain dominates. It causes the behavior typical of snakes and lizards.
This brain can be described as:
People operating mainly from this brain keep making the same mistakes over and over again, never learning from them. Also people who suffer from disorders such as always checking if they have keys in their pockets although they know that they have, operate from this brain.
This brain controls muscles, balance, autonomic functions like heartbeat, blood circulation and breathing. This part of the brain remains active even in deep sleep as it’s necessary for the proper functioning of the body, though its activity lies below our conscious awareness at most times.
The limbic brain
Our middle part of the brain corresponds to most mammals’ brains, especially the earlier ones. This brain is responsible for our…
- sexual behavior
People operating through this brain see everything as either black or white, thus being unable to think about situations from different points of view. Also people who try as much as possible to avoid something that causes pain or discomfort and keep engaging in activities generating pleasure operate mainly through this brain.
Paul MacLean explained that emotions can overtake our thinking because the emotional brain has a different, more primitive language, and it cannot clearly communicate with the newest, neocortex brain though it’s connected to it through nerves. That’s why sometimes it seems that we have to decide to either make a decision using our thinking, or emotions.
The limbic brain is also the seat of attention and emotion-charged memories. It produces emotions such as joy, rage, fear, pleasure and pain.
Paul MacLean saw this brain as a big impediment to the development of humanity, because most people’s actions are tinged with it, producing feelings of being lesser than others, making judgements based on immediate gratification of senses, and being unable to see the situation objectively.
Self-preservation function, procreation, parental care, vocal communication is also caused by the limbic brain. It’s divided into a few integral parts:
- Amygdala (emotional response)
- Anterior cingulate cortex (emotion formation/processing)
- Orbitofrontal cortex (decision-making)
- Hypothalamus (sex, hunger, thirst)
Limbic system gives us a sense of personal identity. Many people operate mainly through this brain.
The neocortex system
The neocortex is slightly developed in primate mammals and quite well-developed in humans. This brain initiates functions which distinguish a human being from an animal. It enables people to come up with novel ideas and think in abstract ways.
The neocortex system allows us to verbalize our inner states. The more a person can describe exactly what’s going on within, the more such a person operates through the neocortex. Some people, however, never analyse or verbalize what’s happening within, and this shows that they mostly operate semi-consciously through the limbic brain.
Paul MacLean quoted other scientists’ research done on animals about what happens when the neocortex is removed. It was found that in such a case animals lose any wish to explore. Also, if such an animal is disturbed, it would try to get the balance back as soon as it can. For example, if a frog would sit in one place for a long time and then someone would disturb it and push it aside with a stick, it would try to get back to the same spot as quickly as possible.
Neocortex also is responsible for…
- memory of details
- problem solving
MacLean explained that people whose brains were well-integrated, expressed empathy. He also concluded after years of intense research that human brain seems to be developing towards concern not only for the human species, but for all living things.
The most empowering part of his research, in my opinion, was the conclusion he made that we can be in charge of our two lower brains by asserting our will. That means we can switch off fear, scarcity mindset and other problematic traits just by asserting our will. By doing this we train our highest brain, the neocortex, to always be in charge.
Willpower has been long associated with Soul in many spiritual traditions and was the main theme of great authors of the past such as William Walker Atkinson. It seems that willpower is the soul power, and this power seems to operate the newest brain in animals and humans – the neocortex.
Nobody could prove or disprove this theory even till today, though MacLean formed it in 1960s. Many scientists attacked the theory, but without any real evidence to bring it down. I think MacLean’s theory should be paid attention to, especially by the people who want to evolve. Because it can show what behaviour causes the activation of lower brains, as well as which behaviour promotes the development of the higher brain, the one operated by the Soul.