Have you been hijacked? The story of your three brains
You have a triune brain.
Triune means “three in one.” While oversimplified, this model posits that we have a reptilian brain (responsible for survival functions of the body), a mammalian brain (concerned with emotions), and a neocortex (concerned with thinking). These three areas of the brain are designed to function in an integrated, cohesive manner.
Do your three brains talk to each other?
In clients who’ve experienced trauma and early attachment wounding, these three regions of the brain, and the way these regions process information, don’t always work well together.
For example, one hypothetical client states: “I know my spouse loves me, but every time she criticizes me I get shaky and overwhelmed with fear. I'm afraid she’s going to leave me. I panic. I over apologize. I beg her not to leave. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed I break up with her, just so she won't break up with me first! She’s angry. She wishes I understood that she’s committed to our relationship. Logically I know she is committed but I still get afraid. What’s going on with me?”
Yikes. This client has been hijacked. His reptilian and mammalian brains have taken over his neocortex.
A basic understanding of how your brain develops and functions will help you make sense of why you may think, feel, and act in all sorts of confusing and contradictory ways.
It’ll also help you find ways to bring the processing of these three brains into alignment.
How does the triune brain process information?
The reptilian brain (or survival brain) operates on instinct and is responsible for survival functions of the body. This part of the brain controls autonomic functions (e.g., heart rate, respiration, body temperature) and is responsible for reflexive actions in response to stress and trauma such as crying out for help, fighting, fleeing, freezing, and feigning death. This part of the brain acts very quickly, more quickly than the neocortex. It’s what prompts us to jump off the path when we’ve encountered a snack, and then later realize the snack is only a stick.
The mammalian brain (or limbic brain) is concerned with our emotions and relationships. Our early experiences with primary caregivers are encoded as nonverbal memories in the limbic brain, laying down the templates for expectations of future relationships. When we receive information from our senses that suggests threat, this part of our brain signals the reptilian brain to protect and defend ourselves. When we receive information that suggests friendliness, we will socially engage with others.
The neocortex (or thinking brain) is responsible for our reasoning and abstraction abilities. The neocortex isn't “online” when we're infants; it takes time for the neocortex to fully develop and form the connections needed for complex thinking. The neocortex is the most conscious of our three brains and we access it to think things through, problem-solve, and plan our lives. “Top-down processing” is when we use our neocortex to override our emotions and body sensations. We’ve all had times when we’ve shut down our sadness so as not to cry, or when we’ve overridden impulses to sleep to study.
How do our brains develop?
Our brains aren’t fully developed when we’re born. Brain development literally depends upon the experiences we have in our early environment. As we respond to the unique circumstances of our family environment and early attachment relationships our brains will grow the neural pathways that best fit these circumstances. From the millions of possible neural pathways that could grow at birth, those pathways that are used repeatedly are strengthened and those that are used rarely are pruned.
Both trauma and attachment relationships influence brain development. Specifically, when we’re in danger or there's stress in our early relationships, our mammalian brain signals danger, our reptilian brain takes over, and we act on instinct. This is when our fight, flight, freeze, and collapse survival strategies come into play.
When the threat or stress is ongoing, our brains learn to look for cues that remind us of these situations so that we can take every precaution to assure our survival in the future.
This learning has a downside. Essentially, our mammalian brain signals danger at cues that were dangerous in the past (but not now) and before we know it we're employing a survival strategy from the past that worked to keep us safe. Let’s say we froze in response to severe parental criticism as a child — we’ll find ourselves freezing in response to critical feedback from our boss at work.
Our neocortex is also affected by trauma and stress. When we’re in danger, we don’t have time to think. It takes longer to process information in the neocortex than the limbic and reptilian regions of the brain, so the neocortex temporarily “shuts down” to allow these regions of the brain to instinctively respond to threat. This is called “bottom-up hijacking.” You’ve probably noticed that it’s harder to think clearly in these times. When children are chronically stressed they’re not able to learn well because there is less activation in the neocortex.
Bottom-up hijacking explains contradictions in our information processing. It explains why our hypothetical client feels panicked that his wife is going to leave him even when she's assured him she won't. Rationally we may know that everything is fine and we’re safe, yet our bodies stiffen and we feel panicked and overwhelmed. We’ve been triggered by something that reminds us of the past, and we’re responding as if the past were occurring in the here and now.
What to do?
With as much kindness and curiosity as we can muster, we want to notice how our three brains are functioning when we’ve been triggered. Mindfully noticing and labeling what's happening will help “wake up” the neocortex and stop the hijacking. Employing strategies to resource the body will help the three brains work together. Steps to take:
1) Notice and label your emotions. Using the example from the beginning of this post, our client may notice “My limbic brain is telling me I’m in danger right now. I feel panicked, afraid and unsafe. But this isn’t fact, it’s a feeling. I’m with my wife and she’s not dangerous." As you let your mammalian brain know you’re safe your body will calm down.
2) Notice and label what's happening in your body. For example, our client may notice "My reptilian brain is preparing me for action — I’m aware I feel shaky, my heart is beating faster and my breath is shallow. All of this body reactivity is preparing me to fight or flee.”
3) Use these observations to work with your body. When we pay close attention to our body sensations we recognize how they're transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking. Take some deep breaths, straighten your spine, soften your muscles by breathing into tension. Make contact with the present moment by feeling your feet on the floor, your sit bones on the chair. Soothe yourself through movement (e.g., swinging, walking, stretching). Calm your five senses (e.g., listen to music you enjoy, take a relaxing bath). As you quiet the body your fear will quiet down.
4) Once your physical arousal has decreased, notice and label your thoughts. For example, our client may notice “I'm having the thought my spouse is going to leave me." Keep bringing your arousal down by working with your breath and observing sensation. See if you can challenge this thought with a more realistic thought, such as "I know my spouse loves me, she isn’t going to leave me. I’m confusing all the times I felt rejected by my critical parent with now.” Notice how this thought impacts body sensations.
This process of mindfully noticing and labeling what’s happening in the three brains, as well as working with your body as a main focus, will help the three brains work in sync again. It'll interrupt learned survival habits from the past and help you respond to present reality.
Action: Recall a time when your mammalian and reptilian brains hijacked your neocortex and you couldn’t think clearly. It may have been during an argument, when you felt rejected or criticized, or when something reminded you of a trauma. Why do you think the hijacking happened? Did the hijacking help you in any way? (e.g., maybe it kept you safe or pushed others away) Did the hijacking hinder you in any way? (e.g., maybe you felt bad about yourself or others thought you were overreacting)
This material comes from Ogden, P. & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York: W. W. Norton.