Brain Strain

Within the skull rests three interlocking brains.

In Summary

•Briefly, the three stages of brain development are referred to as the Reptilian Brain, the Limbic System, and the Neocortex.

•Each has distinct functions. 

A woman in deep thoughts
PRESSURE A woman in deep thoughts

Last week I was in a session with bright people, so engaging and well informed that they could have been your own colleagues! 

We were discussing how successful advertising works - using emotion to bypass logic - and I posed an unfair question. ‘How many brains,’ I asked ‘do you have inside your head?’ 

Many present were sure they had one. Others, aware of the different roles of left and right hemispheres, were of the opinion that they were doubly blessed.

But no-one knew that within their skull rest three interlocking brains, each representing a different stage of our evolution as a species. 

When you know that, it becomes easier to understand why we behave as we do. Not least because all three brains are active in different ways, and sometimes that’s not helpful. 

Briefly, the three stages of brain development are referred to as the Reptilian Brain, the Limbic System, and the Neocortex.

Each has distinct functions.

The smallest is the Reptilian Brain. It keeps us alive - regulating breathing, heart rate and digestion and triggering self preservation behaviours.

Ever wondered why everyone always sits in the same seat around the meeting table? It’s because their reptilian brain has logged it as a safe location: “I sat there yesterday and didn’t die!’ But sitting in the same place, next to the same colleagues, produces meetings without fresh perspectives.

The Limbic Brain is the one that advertisers try to reach. It’s bigger than the Reptilian Brain and surrounds it in the same way your hand wraps around your thumb when you make a fist.

It is the seat of our emotions, supports social bonding and helps us to form and recall memories. It also influences basic drives like hunger, thirst and sexual drive. No wonder advertisers seek to trigger it.

Inside the limbic system is the Amygdala, famous for the ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations.

When a colleague becomes unreasonable, aggressive or withdraws and sulks, he or she is in the grip of the ‘Amygdala Hijack’.

Common workplace situations trigger it: conflict with a colleague or negative feedback from a boss.

So does a high stakes presentation, when the pressure to perform impairs thinking and makes it hard to express yourself.

The Neocortex is the most modern brain, sitting on top of the other two like a hand covering a fist. It enables us to reason, create, anticipate … fly to the Moon, paint the Mona Lisa and graduate with Honours.

The trouble is, in the workplace, the Neocortex frequently puts us on a collision course with colleagues who are being driven by a different brain entirely.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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