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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

New Brain, Old Brain, Mindfulness & Compassion (Part 1/3)

Have you ever felt scared and upset in a situation where you knew it didn’t make sense? Remember any times when you knew you were over-reacting but didn’t feel like you could help it?

Maybe you were afraid of a little dog because you were bitten

 by a  dog as a child, and even though you KNOW this is not that same dog, you have watched it playing with other people really well, but you are still really cautious? Or maybe you had a panic attack once while driving and now you are really stressed whenever you drive, or maybe you avoid it all together?  Whatever the differences in content are, these types of experiences are driven by the same thing- our OLD BRAIN.

Our brains have evolved over thousands of years and this means that we essentially have a part of our brains that is responsible for basic survival functions (Old Brain), and one that has evolved to take care of the higher level functions (New Brain). So here is the break down…

OLD BRAIN – responsible for human drives and shared with many other animals

1. Motives (Safety, Food, Sex, Relationship Seeking, Caring, Status)

Motives evolved because they help animals to survive, seek out things that are important (e.g. food, shelter, relationships, status, reproduction etc) and leave genes behind. There are 3 main motivational systems.

1. Those that focus on Threat appraisal & protection (this one is associated with the neuro-chemical cortisol (part of the fight or flight response) and the Hypothalamic Pituitary Axis that gets activated) 2. Those that focus on Doing and Achieving, and is associated with Drive, Exercise, Vitality (this one is associated with the neuro-chemical Dopamine in the brain, part of the reward centre of the brain) 3. Those that focus on Contentment and Feeling Safe (aka Soothing System), this one is “AFFILIATIVE FOCUSED” (this means it is largely focused on connecting with others) and is associated with contentment, safety, feeling soothed, safeness, kindness,  and compassion (this system is strongly connected to the neuro-chemicals opiates and oxytocin which are responsible for positive feelings and nurturance)

2. Emotions- 

Emotions guide us to our motivations/goals and respond if we are succeeding or threatened (ie. if we are being treated poorly by someone, we often feel anxious around them because our strong and healthy self is telling us something is off and we are not safe around them). It DIRECTS our…

  1. Attention (what we notice and jumps out at us)

  2. Thoughts

  3. Actions and Behaviours

This is what makes it so that we can be standing in a park and if we are feeling upset or angry, we notice the dad yelling at his kid, that the playground needs work, and think about all the things we probably won’t have time to do and how much everything around us seems to be crummy.

Yet if we are standing in the exact same park at the exact same time, but we are feeling happy, we notice the sound of kids laughing, remember how we used to pretend we were flying when we would swing really high as kids and think about how great it is that we are there to enjoy the sun shining and these nice things.

3. Behaviours, which direct …

  1.  Whether we approach or avoid situations (Fight/ Flight) or even if we shut down

NEW BRAIN – responsible for…

  1. Imagination, Creativity

  2. Planning

  3. Integration (fitting new and old pieces of information together in a way that makes sense to us to create a cohesive whole)

  4. Rumination (when we get stuck analyzing, and thinking about things, trying to “figure it out”)

  5. Old Brain and New Brain do not always act in harmony. Sometimes Strong emotional content can be activated by Old brain which can unduly bias the new brain, creating a loop where because we are activated (ie. feeling threatened) we notice and think of things that keep us activated which makes us continue to feel threatened.

  6. It is also important to remember that because we are a social speciesemotional threats are experienced as intensely as physical ones.

  7. What do we DO about this? We can use mindfulness to SEE this loop and self-compassion to soothe our activated system.

Let’s look at this…

Mindfulness, the ability to focus and be present in the moment, often by using all 5 of our senses, allows us to SEE that we are being activated by the old brain and allows us to CONSCIOUSLY CHOOSE to direct our energy towards SELF COMPASSION, which activates our Soothing System, so we can calm down enough to make the healthiest choice for us in that particular situation.

We will talk more about Compassion next week (Part 2/3) and Mindfulness in the final week (3/3), so check back next week to learn more!

This post and some of the images used were thanks to, and informed by, a presentation about ACTing With Compassion” by Martin Brock & Dr Chris Irons at the ACT conference in London England 2013, in association with the Compassionate Mind Foundation

Remember you can follow us on twitter @DrAdrianaWilson, @KRyanWilson or send us an email! Have a great week!

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