The brain’s neocortex is thought to house our rational sense of self. When you reflect upon the type of person you are and what your purpose is, you’re using the higher brain.
Then there’s the primitive brain – or animal brain – that is decidedly not rational, but more concerned with animal instincts and safety. The animal brain cannot be reasoned with because it isn’t capable of reasoning; so the theory goes.
Or, this part of the brain’s reasoning is limited to a narrow agenda, survival. And it’s entirely possible for the animal brain to urge us to do things that don’t make rational sense in our modern world, even where survival is concerned. The world has changed. Our brains haven’t caught up.
HuffPost blogger Dainius Runkevicius explains:
Imagine you are alone in the middle of the woods when you suddenly spot a bear right in front of you. He looks mad — and hungry. Your heart pounds, muscles tense to the point of pain. The sudden encounter triggers alarms in your head, which release a milkshake of chemicals in your body, putting you in “fight or flight” mode.
These unconscious impulses force you into action before you’ve fully comprehended the details of your situation — that is, before the information reaches the rational part of your brain, the neocortex. If not for this early response, you would probably be dinner.
Now let’s take a more common scenario from everyday life:
Your boss asks you to step into his office. You’ve barely entered when he starts yelling at you about your poor performance, unmet KPIs, and the like. Again, your heart races, your palms sweat. And before you’ve fully assessed this “threat,” you burst out with everything you think about him.
You are screwed. Here, your instinctual impulses worked against you.
Most often, modern society demands slower, more rational reactions to complex situations, and we do ok in this area some of the time. Many of us, however, have at least one area of life that is out of control. Our reactions are irrational and self-sabotaging. We aren’t exercising our unique gift of rational choice because the primitive brain is running the show in that area, for whatever reason.
The Key to Getting Control Over Irrational Impulses
The key to ending the conflict between the rational and irrational brains inside us may be to simply recognize them. Although irrational impulses are powerful, they do not represent who we are, and they can be ignored. This may not be easy, but it gets easier when you recognize where the impulses originate.
An irrational impulse urges you to act:
• Defend yourself! He’s trying to destroy you!
• Eat the cake! Who cares! You can eat what you want!
• Stay quiet: They’re going to ridicule you if you speak up!
It could be that knowing such impulses are animal instincts and not who you are (remember, your sense of personal identity does not come from the primitive brain) will help you draw a mental line in the sand. You can say to yourself: This is an animal impulse, not who I am. I need to slow down and make a rational choice.
A lot of us spend time trying to figure out how we can act so irrationally or why we’d ever do some of the things we do. The simple answer could be that not all of us is rational and therefore not subject to the line of reasoning we’d like to apply. We can’t figure out certain behavioral problems; our logic doesn’t work because these impulses themselves are not logical in our modern world. Suffice it to say that somehow the primitive brain linked a certain impulsive behavior to survival. It didn’t make that distinction logically, so logic doesn’t help reason things out.
The effort to stop such impulses may also be frustrating since information (triggers) first passes through the primitive brain before reaching the neocortex. Animal instinct gets the first crack at how we respond. Our best choice may be to recognize that and learn to disobey our instincts when appropriate.