Broadly speaking, our brains evolved in three distinct stages.
This view might not hold up completely under scrutiny of a neuroscientist but even they agree there are three distinct areas with distinct functions.
Having insight into what these stages are, what functions they fulfil and how they influence your behaviour gives you some powerful tools. So, let’s have a look at them.
We all have a little dinosaur in our heads. There is no creature running around in our heads of course, but the most ancient part of the brain basically has the same wiring as any reptile or other ancient creature. Its focus is to maintain balance and survive and it directly influences bodily functions to do just that.
When presented with threats to survival, like a zebra spotting a lion or someone facing redundancy at work, it will trigger the fight-or-flight response.
All of this takes place unconsciously, and the physical reactions associated with this response might lead you to behave in ways your conscious self does not agree with.
The Limbic System.
Sitting on top of our little dinosaur is the emotional part of the brain. This system is very much a mammalian specialty; reptiles are not well known for their emotional lives.
In addition to being responsible for the pleasant feelings and behaviours associated with reproduction, bonding and parental care, this part of the brain is also critical to memory and learning processes. Emotions, memory and learning are drivers of cooperation and competition, processes us mammals engage in constantly.
Just think of the cooperation required to hunt and the competition for food, or building a team to achieve a common goal and competing with your peers for that new role that has become available and with competitors for customers.
Logic & Reason.
The brand-spanking new, or most recently evolved, part of the brain. The cortex is associated with logic, reason and conscious processing. We like to think that this is our control centre, where we control urges and impulses like the fight-or-flight response.
And although the cortex at times does influence and mitigate triggers from the little dinosaur and the emotional part of the brain, more often than not it’s actually being influenced and limited by the older parts of the brain, fabricating justifications to explain behaviour along the way.
When you are under a lot of pressure and feeling on edge, for example, your cortex might make impulsive, and even stupid, decisions that seem brilliant at the time.