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Moving from Limbic to Pre-Frontal Thinking

Steve Stonsy’s book and online course Soar Above  simplifies our social behavior to two very simple polarities: a reactive, Toddler Brain, and a responsive, Adult Brain.

Stonsy’s approach is very similar to a Cognitive Behavioral model much more widely known in the Francophone world called the Neuro-Cognitive Behavioral Approach (NCBA). In this model, behavioral characteristics are assigned to four primary areas of our brain, each having appeared along an evolutionary timeline from the oldest and simplest to the newest and most complex.

The oldest of these four brain regions, obviously, is our survival brain which is called our limbic or reptilian brain. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for detecting threats and reacting instinctively to them, either by fleeing, freezing or fighting. In this mode we don’t have or even need time to think or reflect. Naturally, this reactionary center is the Toddler Brain’s emotional throne and we could be over-relying on it in our dealings with others, potentially creating a lot of unnecessary drama.

We know we’re being “limbic,” when we are constantly reacting to the world, when we have a feeling that people and events are happening to us. It’s a somewhat anxious state to be in, or at the best of times, a pleasure-seeking state that doesn’t think much about future consequences.

Circling back to Stonsy, Toddlers, he explains in his book, react identically to perceived and actual threats. And I’ve noticed that they also have a tendency to throw tantrums when events in the external world fail to meet their expectations. There’s something inherently egocentric about toddlerhood. Nothing wrong with that if you are a toddler, but it could be potentially ruinous if we don’t recognize the pattern in our adult selves!

We retain those early patterns of expectation-formation and reaction to disappointment well into adulthood, except now they’re disguised under swathes of logical reasoning that works in overdrive to reassure us that “we’re right, and they deserved it!” If we’re not aware of the basis for our emotional reactions, we could be going through the world making decisions and taking actions based on ways of being we learned and internalized when we were toddlers.

The Adult Brain, Stonsy says, processes difficult situations (and emotions) within parts of the human brain that evolved much later. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain behind our forehead, is that part we engage when we are in a proactive process of adapting, responding and innovating a solution to a problem or challenge.

Toddlers also use this part of their brain. When a toddler is learning something new, or rising to the challenge of figuring out where the square peg goes, they’re using their Adult Brain, except their Adult Brain is still in its early formations.

Rather than reacting to a situation, which is the domain of the limbic system (RUN! FIGHT! HIDE!), the Adult Brain takes on the explorative effort to innovate a solution (Hmm, what are my options here? Why is this happening? How can I resolve this situation?).

As we age, we can develop mastery over ourselves. It’s ok to react emotionally and instantly to something, the reaction is instinctive and will likely happen before we can do anything about it.  What we can do, however, is gradually develop the skill to shift our cognitive activities from the limbic region to the complex reasoning of the prefrontal cortex. This is how people learn to develop good characteristics and bring an end to undesirable ones.

The 8th century Buddhist teacher Shantideva gave golden advice in the 8th century about stemming the tide of the reactive mind through discipline, when he said:

When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.

Cumulatively, over time, one decision not to give in to your reactive mind after another, you will end up with quite a different set of outcomes and results for your life than you would have, had you kept doing what you learned to do as a 3 year-old.

Moving from Limbic to Pre-Frontal Thinking

Samar Habib

Samar Habib is the creator of The Quantum Mind, an online course for optimizing the mind for health and wellness.

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APA Reference
Habib, S. (2019). Moving from Limbic to Pre-Frontal Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Aug 2019
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