If you’ve ever bought a car, then you’re aware that there are tons of different models to choose from. When you finally decide on what model you’re going to buy, you realize that each model has it’s own trim. If you buy a Camry you can get an LE or a SE or a XLS or a XSE or a PDQ or an ABC – I may have made a few of those up. Either way, they all have different options and capabilities. If you’re really tuned in and you have some more money to spend, you can even spring for a Lexus which is a latin word that translates roughly as “Toyota on steroids.”
The reality is that if you strip all the bells and whistles of these cars away, they’re all built on the same platform. The basic parts are all the same. Car companies have learned that they can build all sorts of models on the same chassis. It’s a cost-effective and efficient approach that really makes sense for the sort of business they’re trying to run. But there are certain limitations that are common to all cars because of this.
As it turns out, it’s a great metaphor for the way that we as humans are put together. Call us what you want: the top of the food chain, the pinnacle of creation, the best of the best. Just don’t forget that at the core we are animals. We may be the “top of the line” but we share a LOT in common with the more basic models below us.
When we are talking about more fully understanding ourselves and what it means to be in relationship, our biology matters. The fact that we are animals has some really interesting implications to our lives in general and the more we understand about this, the more we can relate to the people around us.
There are lots of aspects of our biology that we could consider, but I want to camp out in our brain, since that’s what we often consider the most human. First of all, our brain is spectacular. There is nothing that you have thought about, nothing that you remember, nothing that you have learned to do without your brain being at the very heart of it all. Your brain is you. All of the aspects of your personality, all of your hopes and dreams, the way that you have learned to connect with and relate to others, is all contained in your brain. If we’re going to talk about relationships then, it’s going to be important for us to have a good understanding of what’s happening under the hood.
The Pathways In Our Head
Brains are made up of tiny little cells called neurons. Neurons are like a lot of the other cells in your body except they’re specialized in creating circuits and passing electrochemical messages to one another. Whether you’re a bird or a dog or a human, this process is essentially the same. You have a collection of these neurons that connect with one other. Each neuron has a main body part and usually one long arm. Electricity runs down the length of the arm where it signals the release of chemicals. The chemicals travel to the next neuron and starts the process again. When you have a thought or relive a memory or decide to eat pizza there is a corresponding set of circuits that get activated in your brain.
Every thought. Every belief. Every feeling. Every habit. All of it is somehow tied to circuits in your brain.
It used to be that we thought our brains were pretty static once we reached adulthood. You’ve probably heard things like “beer kills brain cells” and we’ve only got so many to spare. As it turns out, science has now uncovered the fact that our brain continues to create new cells and that the circuits that are set up can be changed. These connections between neurons are incredibly dynamic. When they’re used, they get strengthened so that they’re likely to fire again. Related circuits can also fire together. This is why when I write the word firetruck there’s a pretty good chance the circuit associated with the color red fires in your brain as well. These connections have been reinforced so much that they tend to set each other off.
Think of it this way. Imagine a field of tall grass. Maybe you had a field like this near your home when you were a child. Now imagine that your school is on the other side of this field so you have to walk through the grass every day. After the first day, you might notice that the grass along the path you took is a little trampled. It’s still standing pretty tall just not as tall as the grass around it. The next day, you take the same route. And the next day. Eventually, the slightly trampled grass becomes very trampled and a clear path is formed underfoot. Now imagine that others stumble on the field and need to cross to the other side. Chances are, they see the path that you took and decide that they are going to follow the same path rather than try to form their own. The circuits in your brain work in much the same way. Once a circuit is formed, there’s a good chance that it will continue to fire. This is why some thoughts or reactions can seem so automatic to us. It’s because they are!
But now imagine that you still want to cross the field but you’ve moved onto the high school which is much further down the street from your old school. You could take the same path but then you would have a long walk down the street; it makes more sense to forge a new, direct route through the tall grass. So you take the same approach, walking the same path day after day. Eventually your new path is formed just like your old one was. But, what has happened to the old path? Because it wasn’t being used, the grass grew back up, obscuring the path.
Your circuitry can change. If you’re not happy with where your relationship is right now, if you’re not happy with the person you are, the great new is that things can change. There are more potential connections between neurons in your brain than there are atoms in the known universe!!! You are not broken! Far from it. You have infinite possibilities. In fact, as we will see in more detail later, the experiences that you have had largely determine who you are at this moment. But, if we change our direction, we can forge a new pathway!
The Building Blocks
There are some other important aspects of what it means for us to have a brain. What I’m about to share with you is an incredibly simplified take on brain science, but it will give you some helpful insight about your own inner world. Remember, if we’re going to be able to work on our relationships, we have to ensure we have a good understanding of our own reactions, biases, tendencies, and behaviors. When we understand what’s really going on inside our head, it gives us the best chance to succeed.
So let’s talk about the three main parts of your brain and how they make us who we are.
First, we have an area called the brainstem. This is one of those parts that basically all of us animals have in common. If you think about the brain, it’s at the very top of the spinal cord and kind of gets hidden underneath all of the stuff above it. Sometimes, we call it the lizard brain because it’s responsible for things that even lizards can do. You can thank your brainstem for managing your breathing and helping to regulate your blood pressure so you don’t have to do that manually. At the end of the day, your brainstem makes you feel tired and insists that you get some sleep. We don’t have a lot of conscious control over this part of our brain so we won’t be talking about it much but you can see why it’s so important to us.
Secondly, we have an area of the brain called the limbic system. It’s actually made up of a lot of smaller parts that are responsible for many different things. For our purposes, we will highlight two important functions. First, your limbic system is responsible for what we call your fight or flight response. If you’ve ever been startled and felt that rush of adrenaline coursing through your body, this was your limbic system at work. The information from your senses – sight, smell, hearing – passes through your limbic system very, very quickly. In milliseconds, it has to sort through all of this data and figure out if you’re in any danger. If it finds something that even resembles some sort of threat, it prepares your body to respond by signaling for adrenaline to be released. It can be thrilling or even scary, but it’s just your limbic system wanting to keep you alive.
The second function of your limbic system is to facilitate memory and you can see how it’s related to the first. As you encounter new things, new people, and have new experiences, your limbic system takes all of this information and works to store it away in ways that are easy for it to recall. It categorizes your memories and prioritizes them so that it can best keep you alive.
Both of these functions are also closely related to the idea of emotion. What we call emotion is a physiological response of our body to whatever conditions we find ourselves in. The conditions that we are in at any given moment are being filtered by our limbic system, scanning for threats or how similar it might be to bad situations from our past. You can be sure that, whatever emotion you are experiencing – whether you’re happy, sad, or angry – your limbic system was somehow involved.
Essentially, if the brainstem’s job is to handle the basic functions you need to live, the limbic system’s job is to keep you away from dangerous situations or to alert you when you are in danger. It’s also important to know that your limbic system is fully functional from the moment your born. Even before you can talk or make sense of what is actually happening, your limbic system is storing information about dangerous situations just in case you ever need to recall them. Like your brainstem, these processes are automatic and there’s not a lot of conscious input. We often refer to the limbic system as your monkey brain because it tends to be always active, bouncing around. I like to call it an overcaffeinated air traffic controller. I’m grateful that it’s so vigilant about keeping me alive but I wouldn’t want that to be my normal!
The final part of the brain is also the most recognizable. When you see pictures of the brain and you see all of the folds and bumps and valleys, you’re looking at the neocortex (or just cortex). This part of the brain is responsible for all of the process that we think about as human. We can make decisions, we can decide to have stir-fry for supper, we can think about what it means to be an American, we can plan for the future, we can discern between Cabernet and Merlot, all because of our neocortex. Rationality is a function of your cortex. Your neocortex is super complex and amazing. It’s also only basically functioning when you were born. Instead, the exact make up of this part of your brain, we now know, is largely determined by the experiences that you have as you grow. It’s not exactly a blank slate, but it is very moldable – brain scientists today speak about it as being “plastic.”
Your brain is complicated and it’s important to recognize that many things are happening in any given moment. This is one of the reasons why knowing this is helpful when it comes to improving your relationships. Imagine a situation where you get aggravated with your partner. There might be lots of reasons for this, but it might be helpful to realize that something was said or done that might have triggered your limbic system. Something about this situation resulted in your aggravation. With this in mind, we have a couple of options. We can blame our partner, dig in our heels and fight. Or, when we are aware of what is happening on a different level, we can explore where this aggravation is coming from and communicating that to our partner.
In fact, the degree to which our limbic system gets triggered impacts exactly how well we can rationalize a situation. As we move from the least complex parts of our brain (i.e. brainstem) to the most complex (i.e. neocortex), the priority goes down. Our neocortex is capable of amazing things, but if there is a threat to our safety, our limbic system takes over and some would say that our neocortex – and, therefore, our ability to think clearly and rationally – goes offline. The more serious the issue, the more energy is diverted to our limbic system, and the less clearly we are able to think. This is why it can feel like we are just “being emotional” sometimes – because we very well could be.
Language is a function of your cortex too and this is an important idea. When you’re triggered, when your emotions are running the show, your limbic system takes over some of the priority. When this happens, your ability to communicate with words is pretty limited. This is exactly why it’s hard to reason with someone who is in this state. Your limbic system doesn’t understand language. What you’re limbic system understands is safety, and security. It needs to be held. It needs to know that the things around you are not a threat. It needs to know that the members of the tribe value you even when emotions are at their highest. It needs to feel connected in a way that words simply cannot do.
We’ll talk about this a lot more as we continue to dive in deeper.
We have evolved some pretty incredible capabilities. We have accomplished a lot. The very idea that we can relate to one another in the ways that we do is miraculous. Still, it’s important to remember that we are animals, built on the same foundations that other animals are. Our biology comes with certain limitations. But we can also be aware of these limitations and adapt to them so that our relationships become as fulfilling as possible.
After all of this, I hope you can see that the brain is incredibly complex and involved in every single experience we have. Every emotional reaction. Every desire to fight. Every painful memory. When we understand that these things absolutely will happen and that they’re automatic, hopefully we can give ourselves – and our partner – a little more grace in difficult situation.
One last thing.
Remember how I said that the limbic system is fully functional from the moment we are born? It is constantly at work, filing information away that it thinks we might need in the future to keep us alive. The kind of experiences that we have when we are infants may seem insignificant now as adults, but they’re incredibly important – we are completely dependant on the people who care for us. How they care for us, the kind of experiences they expose us to, have very real impact on our brains, and on the memories that start to form.
This is why – as we’ll talk about in the next post – Relationships Matter.