7 Practical Facts about the Human Brain I wish Everyone Knew
10 - 13 minutes
I don’t think it’d have been possible for me to connect with the topic of emotional resilience without a really solid amount of scientific evidence and brain facts supporting it. As a self-identified left-brained male, I need a lot of safety signals from the world of science to really allow myself to go deeper into myself and explore.
As I learned about how we can stay present with difficult experiences, the latest research of neuroscience was a north star for me. I thought this would be a great opportunity to pick out some of the top 10 brain facts that I’ve learned over the years and also share how specifically they can support your inner well-being. Let’s check them out:
1.) 80% of your body’s signals are sent to the brain from the body and only 20% the other way around.
Many of us see the brain as a kind of central command center. The latest research suggests that it is more of a logistics warehouse instead. Let me explain what I mean. In our bodies, the largest nerve that we have is called the vagus nerve. It goes from our gut (sometimes called the “gut brain”) through our heart and lungs, all the way up to our face and ear canal into our brain. This nerve is even thicker than the spinal cord and most of us have never even heard of it.
Any time you feel any feelings or sensations in your body, chances are its the vagus nerve. Feeling heart-broken? Feeling angry and frustrated? Feeling sunken and collapsed? Feeling energized and happy? All of these feelings will have had their origin as sensations from vagus nerve. And the only way you know cognitively in the first place that this is what you’re feeling is because your body has sent signals to your brain. The vagus nerves cells are 80-90% afferent, which means they send signals from the body to the brain and only 10-20% are efferent sending signals from the brain to your body to move or do something.
How you can make this your ally:
Given the latest understandings of our human nervous system, scientists have mostly embraced the idea that most of our actions are unconscious with a conscious component.
Instead of asking “How can I control my body?” you could experiment with saying “What is my body trying to tell me with that tight stomach, sunken heart, clenched shoulders?” and then to hold space for that experience.Since we’re not really in control of your bodies reactions and sensations, flipping the script and accompanying those reactions and sensations can create a whole new world. This is certainly a journey, and yet I’ve personally found that the more I can adopt that understanding, the more ease and freedom, almost as a contradiction to my need for control, do I feel in my life.
2.) When your amygdala is active, you can’t have empathy for others
You might have learned about the amygdala, an almond sized part of your limbic system, sometimes called the emotion center of our brains. When you feel relaxed and alert after a good nights sleep for example, your amygdala’s activity may be balanced and show a strong linkage with your neocortex, the “thinking” part of your brain. If you go to work and hear your boss say something like “Your presentation last night really sucked!”, this may trigger your amygdala to become active very quickly, firing all sorts of signals through your brain from anger, to hurt, to fear and anxiety. If this reaches a certain amount of activity, the amygdala may “take over” your brain activity. This means it disconnects from your neocortex and kind of says “I’m in charge now”. There’s now little to no possibility for you to be in a compassionate, gentle and alert company with others up until you’ve found a way to calm your amygdala again and for your thinking brain to reconnect.
Researcher Dr. Dan Siegel calls this “flipping your lid”. Your “lid”, being the neocortex” is no longer keeping the amygdala, your “boiling pot”, in check and it’s now bubbling and spewing about without being in check. Many of our most regrettable experiences happen when we do things with a “flipped lid”.
I’ll write more about how to work with a “flipped lid”. For now, my best advice is to use your usual coping strategy that helps you to feel calm and centered again.
3.) A new fundamental rule of brain plasticity: When a synapse strengthens, its neighbors weaken
A recent MIT study confirmed something that many of us already knew intuitively for a long time and took it further. When we take up a new habit, or develop a new response to a something we experience, the brain builds new pathways. Not only that, the other pathways, that have been in use up until that time, now become a lot weaker and less powerful. This means, your brain is organically de-emphazising old, no longer helpful patterns once we start developing new, more stable and versatile ones to deal with life.
How this affects us:
To me, this brings me a lot of reassurance that whenever I do an emotional resilience session, a meditation, therapy session or other form of regulation of my emotions my brain is like a muscle that atrophies previously unused muscles and builds up these newer pathways with the resources of the pathways no longer in use. What this research also underlines for me is that doing any form of emotional resilience on a regular basis is extremely important to keep the dynamic brain pathways up to date.
4.) The emotional content of our voices is one of the most important signals of relaxation and safety to our brains
You might have heard the common saying “Only 7% of our words are what matter, the rest is how we say it and body language.”. That insight originally derived from a very limited social sciences study from the 70s. Many of those popularized findings, don’t seem to hold up to our current standards of scientific knowledge. Despite that, there is some very strong evidence today, that the brain does rely mostly on the emotional content of the words we say, or in science terms, the “prosody” of our voices.This is because the when we were living in the wild, hundreds of thousands of years ago, without language, the way we communicated to each other was not with words, but with sounds. A very high-pitched sound in our voice signaled fear, threat and danger to those around us, for example screaming when you see a snake. And a very low-pitched sound did the same, signaling predators growling for example. A medium to slightly higher frequency of our voices is generally the kind that signals us the most safety. This is often the kind of voice that we make when talking to babies, where we all naturally raise our voices and speak in a kind of cooing sound. This naturally calms and soothes them, as it does for adults too. If you ever heard yourself say “you have such a calm voice”, then this is a sign of connecting with the soothing frequency of someone who is clearly signaling relaxation and safety to you.
How this affects us at work and life:
If you ever felt that people at work or in life aren’t listening to you in the way you like, even or especially when some of your ideas are later getting picked up as good ones from someone else, see if the emotional intonation of your voice could be an issue. Are you often getting excited and anxious before a presentation or raising your voice in a meeting? If so, even though your ideas may be brilliant, there’s a chance that people around you don’t pick up the words you’re saying, but instead the fear and anxiety are naturally not as interested in your ideas.
Although this may be a much bigger thing to address than is space for in this article on how to work with that anxiety or stress in meetings, see if just recognizing that this may have had an impact for you before already changes things. And if there’s room, see if you can be more conscious of the intonation of your voice, where you can speak with the calmness and excitement that may be more in the range of relaxation. We can also work with an anxiety before speaking like this in a 1:1 session to look at some of the deeper underlying parts to transform it into more aliveness and joy.
5.) Your brain has a 3 way fallback system that ends in feigning death
From a brain science perspective, our body can be in 3 different kinds of states.
The first one is sometimes called “relaxed alertness”, that’s when you feel connected to yourself and the world and you go about life happily, doing the things you enjoy doing with the people you love. In a way we can describe this as our natural place of compassion and happiness. The world generally is a happy place in this state.
The second state you can be in is called “mobilization”, in this state there has been some element added to your environment that your brain intuitively identified as a threat, which may make you feel angry, frozen, startled, anxious or any other feeling you tend to feel when there’s a conscious or unconscious threat around you. The world generally seems to be a dangerous and scary place when we are in this state.
The third and final state, that’s very close to us looking like we’re dead is called “collapse”. Biologically this has partially the function to feign death when a threat has become so overwhelming that we can’t escape or respond in any way other than shut down completely. We may feel numb or very depressed in that state. The world seems to be a hopeless, empty and dark place when we are in this state.
How to make better decisions knowing the 3-way-fallback system:
For a lot of us, we tend to make the best, most compassionate and harmonious decisions when we are in the first state of relaxed alertness. And yet, when we are in a state of feeling either mobilized or collapsed we’re sometimes drawn to make instinctual decisions that we may regret later. Whenever we’re about to send an important email or make an important decision for our lives, check in with yourself and ask “Which of the 3 brain states am I in right now?”. If the answer isn’t relaxed alertness, see if instead of making the decision, if you can instead tend to your sense of feeling threatened or collapsed in another way, by having a call with a friend, going for a walk, taking a warm shower, talking to a therapist or any other coping strategy you know that helps you feel grounded and centered.
6.) Elevated stress changes our brain chemistry and shrinks the area connected to making goals
You might have heard before that stress is “bad” for you. And you might have even just felt really depleted and exhausted after a stressful day and noticed how hard it is on you. From a brain perspective, there’s ample evidence how being in a stressful environment without enough time to come out of the stress changes the chemistry of your brain. And by doing so, the brain’s resources are being shifted. So much so, that to keep the body running with resources through such elevated and stressful times, the brain removes and even shrinks areas of your brain that are used for goal setting, being creative and makes decisions.
7.) A “trigger” is a subconscious re-activation of unintegrated memories in your brain
You might have heard the term trigger before. It’s become almost ubiquitous on the internet these days. Let’s dig in a little what it is specifically from the perspective of your brain. A trigger simply speaking is an unconscious activation of a difficult, unprocessed and unintegrated memory from your past. Say you once had a teacher that shouted at you often and you felt ashamed, terrified and anxious a lot around them. That teacher was wearing a particular style of pants and shoes that were red often too. Now, since the emotional responses weren’t processed in your brain, they simply lie dormant until they have a chance to become integrated and processed by you. In the meantime however, whenever you see someone with red shoes, you may have the same feelings, emotions and responses. This is because your amygdala, the fear center of your brain, recognizes the shoes as threat from when you were a child in school. And says “hey, you’re about to get shouted at again!”, even though this event is in the past now, your emotional response may still be very present.
How to integrate this:
A lot of people have asked me, what are signs of triggers? Sarah Peyton, author of Your Resonant Self offers us a great list around it:
Inappropriate reactivity (becoming more angry or scared than the situation calls for)
Intrusive memories (having a memory replay over and over again without choice)
Nightmares and night terrors T
he sudden, unpredictable drop into tears, sobbing, or irritation
Dislike of the self
Groundless dislike of others
The sense of being incapable of love
A consistent feeling of shame
A sudden need to control the environment or another’s actions
Ongoing exhaustion, fatigue, overwhelm, or the inability to concentrate
Emotional numbness, loss of pleasure and meaning
Obsession with death
If any of these seem true to you, chances are you may be experiencing a triggered response from your body. We’ll look more closely into this in future posts, but for now, my suggestion is that whenever you notice any of these triggers being active, see if you can take space in a way that is safe and non-reactive. This can happen by either moving into some of your favorite coping strategies, like eating a chocolate bar, going for a run, taking a warm shower and so on. Whatever your coping strategy is, if you notice it currently has a lot of negative other consequences, like alcohol or candy for example, see if you can shift them slightly to something that still feels soothing, like going from eating candy to a warm shower, but doesn’t ask for too big of a change in your coping patterns.
Doing deeper work with the latest neuroscientific evidence as support
If any or all of this resonates with you, and you feel inspired and curious what it would be like to really support your brain in these different states and experiences, I’d love to offer my support of working with you. It’s become my passion to study how the brain works in these different circumstances and then support people in healing through my therapy, nonviolent communication and meditation training. If you are interested in that, please reach out to me here.