11 Feb How do you get your 3 brains in sync?
How do you get your 3 brains in sync?
Getting yourself in synchronicity with the rhythms of the world around you helps you to feel more natural and normal. Take, for instance, the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset: most people sleep better when it’s dark outside, even in a windowless room, and most people feel most focused after breakfast. Likewise, there is a deep satisfaction in keeping rhythm with the four seasons: A hike on a woodsy path through autumn foliage. A summer day soaking up the sun at the beach. Building a backyard igloo on a clear morning after a winter’s storm. The annual rebirth of the world heralded by a crocus pushing up through still frozen ground.
It’s no accident. Your body was designed to synchronize with the world around you. For example, many women have menstrual cycles that keep rhythm with the monthly lunar cycle. Restful breathing seems to keep the rhythm of waves lapping against a sandy shore. The harmony of being in synchronicity helps deliver inner peace. When you relax, your heart maintains a steady beat, like the calming music of an internal drum.
So, it should be no surprise that it is difficult to achieve inner peace when your brain gets out of sync with its own rhythm.
“Wait a minute,” you might observe. “How can something be out of sync with itself?” After all, synchronization occurs when several things work harmoniously together. “You only have one brain, right?”
An American physician and scientist, Paul D. Maclean, developed the evolutionary concept of a triune brain. In a 1990 book, he espoused a theory that our skulls house not one brain, but three. Each brain represents a distinct evolutionary stratum that formed upon the older layer, as if there were an archaeological site inside your skull. The human brain, Maclean believed, is three brains in one: the reptilian complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex. Each of the three brains is connected to the other two. Although the scientific foundations of his work have been challenged, the concept of the triune brain remains an excellent paradigm.
The reptilian brain
“Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like the brain of a crocodile,” Carl Sagan.
The most primitive parts of your brain includes the brainstem and the cerebellum. In animals such as reptiles, the brainstem and cerebellum dominate. For this reason Maclean gave it the moniker “reptilian brain.”
Some of the structures that comprise the brainstem are the medulla oblongata, the pons and the midbrain (mesencephalon). The brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. If the rest of the brain looked like a head of broccoli, the brainstem would resemble the stalk, less than three inches in length.
The medulla oblongata (or medulla) is a cone shaped mass of brain cells (neurons) that is directly adjacent, and connected to, the spinal cord. The medulla contains the cardiac, respiratory and vomiting centers. It is responsible for autonomic (involuntary) functions ranging from breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to vomiting and sneezing.
In latin, pons means bridge, this is an apt term for this part of the brainstem, which connects the cerebrum (latin for brain) to the cerebellum (latin for little brain). The functions of the pons include swallowing, bladder control, hearing, equilibrium, taste, eye movement, facial expressions, facial sensation, and posture. The pons has been implicated in initiating REM sleep and dreaming. A stroke in the pons can cause the ‘locked in syndrome’ where a patient is completely alert and aware, but cannot respond to the outside world.
The mesencephalon, or midbrain sits at the top of the stem. It is associated with vision, hearing, arousal (alertness) and temperature regulation. Patients afflicted with Parkinson’s disease have characteristic midbrain abnormalities.
The cerebellum is another component of the reptilian brain that resides at the back and bottom of our heads. It is the main balance and coordination center of the brain. It is vital in the performance of tasks such as walking, writing, grooming and feeding oneself. Without its proper function we could not fine tune any of our motions or even sit upright.
The limbic system
Wrapped around the reptilian brain is a set of neural structures one step up the evolutionary ladder. MacLean coined the name ‘limbic system’ for this middle ground of the brain. Initially recognized by Paul Broca, a French physician, in 1878 as ‘le grand lobe limbique’, it is concerned with emotions and instincts: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual behaviour (the mnemonic we learned in medical school; the four F’s). The limbic system controls our moods and powers our drives: hunger, sex, dominance, care of offspring. It is a survival oriented part of the brain that drives us to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
The limbic system is comprised of several nuclei (clusters of neurons) spread throughout the center of the brain and connected to one another by axons (parts of nerve cells that act like cables and transmit signals). The central structure of the limbic system is the amygdala. Each amygdalae is an almond-shaped mass of neurons located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. There are two amygdalae, one situated in each brain hemisphere. In addition to processing emotions, the amygdala influences which memories are to be stored. The hippocampus, another limbic system structure that abuts the amygdala consolidates information from short-term memory and coordinates the processing and storage of long-term memory.
The instinctual limbic system focuses on our emotional responses to situations and causes us to make snap judgments based on past experiences and memories. It helps decide whether our higher brain has a “good” idea or not, whether something feels true and right.
The Neocortex may also be referred to as the cerebral cortex, the cerebrum, the cortex, or the gray matter. The higher cognitive functions which distinguish humans from animals emanate from the cortex. The cerebrum makes up more than three quarters of the total brain mass in humans, a much higher percentage than other animals. The lobes of the brain (frontal, parietal, occipital, temporal) and other named areas of cortex (insular, cingulate) each control distinct higher level functions. Each lobe may be divided further based on specific functions. For example, the orbital prefrontal cortex is a key area for decision making. The supplementary motor area helps plan complex movements, such as determining if an incoming pitch is a strike or a ball and telling you whether to swing. There is even a cocktail party area in the left sided posterior superior temporal cortex which allows you to hear someone gossiping about you, even when they are on the other side of a noisy room.
The human cerebral cortex has regions that are stunningly complex. There are six separate layers of cells (under the microscope they look like the layers of a cake) in the cortex that interact with each other. There is a hierarchy between the layers, with some of the cells having more sophisticated function than others. Cortical hierarchy, and interactions between the layers, helps you decide what is essential versus distracting noise and is active in making decisions that avoid unintended consequences.
Why do your 3 brains get out of sync?
The reptilian brain, the limbic system and the neocortex live together in one small space (your skull). In order for you to function well in this wide and crazy world all three brains have to find a way to work together. They have to keep in sync. The problem is: not only do the 3 brains have to keep in sync with each other, but they need to maintain rhythm with different parts of the outside and internal world. That’s a lot of moving parts. Your three brains get out of sync with each other because they lose connection with each other while trying to juggle the various rhythms of different exterior and interior forces.
The reptilian brain, as described above, is responsible for basic life functions, such as heart rate and breathing. The rhythm of this primitive part of the brain is affected by instantaneous changes in the external world, such as leaving a warm cozy couch in front of a roaring fireplace and going outside to flap in the snow and make an angel or jumping in fright after unexpectedly hearing a dog run up behind you and bark. Once your neocortex has had a chance to catch up and process what is going on in the external world, the reptilian brain has returned to its baseline rhythm or settled into a new one.
The limbic system, which modulates your needs and desires, keeps a different beat than the reptilian brain. Hunger and thirst keep a diurnal rhythm (breakfast with the rising sun and dinner at sunset). The need for sleep follows a similar pattern. Sex drive, also under limbic control, differs greatly between genders and even differs in the same person based on his/her stage of life (pre-pubertal, adolescent, adult, post-meopausal, elderly). But for many women of reproductive age, the sex hormone levels that are associated with sexual desire keep rhythm with the lunar cycle.
The neocortex is involved in long term planning. The gray matter is the part of your brain that keeps your eyes on the prize while you delay gratification. Modern day examples include skipping the beach vacation in the Carribean while you save up for the downpayment on that house in the ‘burbs. Or putting in the hundred-hour weeks during the decade you must slave away before becoming a partner in the law firm. Historical examples include: not eating every last seed, but setting a few aside to bury in the dirt and tending them while they grow. The neocortical mental fortitude necessary to earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. The neocortex, for this reason, keeps a slower rhythm than the limbic system or the reptilian brain: it keeps more in tune with the cycle of the changing seasons.
You can appreciate that it takes an accomplished internal conductor to keep this three piece orchestra in harmony. And it gets even more difficult when one of the three doesn’t keep the rhythm for which it was designed. The reptilian brain’s rhythm may get out of whack from heart disease, lack of exercise or chronic elevated cortisol due to a stressful life. The neocortex may respond abnormally to a dark, cold winter by a lugubrious rhythm change (seasonal affective disorder). The limbic system of many people lost its beat in the social isolation imposed by the government during the pandemic.
The modern world has exacerbated the difficulties in keeping your mental ensemble playing in tune. The single biggest reason for the descent into cacophony is that we are increasingly separated from the natural world. When you are cooped up in a small apartment or trudging through a jungle made of dead concrete rather than living organisms, you lose contact with the external forces that help your brain keep the beat. Perpetual neon lights are a poor rhythmic substitute for cyclic changes between sunshine, starlight and moonlight.
Each of your three brains gets pulled in unnatural directions for which they were not designed. The neocortex is in constant danger of melting down due to information overload that it’s stuffed with by even the most cursory internet search. The limbic system is in danger of being torn asunder by exposure to the gratuitous violence vicariously experienced in video games one moment and, a few keystrokes later, the solitary erotic arousal delivered by a sceenful of internet porn. The reptilian brain is thrown into a tizzy by the incessant wailing of sirens from each passing cop car or ambulance.
It is no wonder that your 3 brains may get hopelessly out of sync. With all the disharmonious whirring and wobbling inside your skull, you may feel constantly off balance. You may walk through your days in a miasma of disquiet, wondering how to get your brain back on track.
3 methods to get your 3 brains back in sync
The sine qua non of brain synchronicity is unplugging. No TV (cable news is the worst offender (https://www.facebook.com/marcarginteanu.md/posts/437882344216661)). No phone. No electronics. Just turn them off. It might take you an hour for a brain cooldown. It may take all weekend. Once you get over the acute withdrawal symptoms, you’re ready to begin the process of getting your 3 brains back in sync. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. But here are three of my favorite tricks to restore your triune brain rhythm.
Get outside for walk through nature
Walking represents the base rhythm that was programmed into your ancestors’ brains during the millions of years that they spent wandering; foraging for sustenance as nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Getting your body gently bouncing along, will make your brain receptive to the natural world around you.
Once you’re outside, in order to get your 3 brains in sync, you have to engage your five senses (https://www.facebook.com/marcarginteanu.md/posts/362192508452312):
Smelling the perfumed pines will get the limbic lobe and the neocortex back in sync. Appreciating aromas directly links the limbic lobe, through the olfactory bulb, to the neocortex via the piriform cortex (insular lobe and temporal lobe). Olfaction is especially potent at linking different parts of the brain because it is the only sensation from the outside world that is not routed through and muffled by the thalamus (main relay center of the brain).
Hearing the crickets chirp will get the reptilian brain and the neocortex back in sync. Sound enters the brain at the pons and medulla of the reptilian brain and is routed to the temporal lobe of neocortex.
Watching the peaceful puffy clouds float by will also tighten the bonds between the reptilian brain and the neocortex. A representation of all that you see passes through the midbrain, part of the reptilian brain, and continues onwards to the occipital lobe of neocortex.
Enjoying a mouthful of cool water or the taste of the fresh breeze restores a common rhythm between reptilian brain and neocortex. The sensation of taste enters the brain in the reptilian brain (pons) and connects to the neocortex at the gustatory cortex (insular lobe and frontal lobe).
Feeling the sun’s kiss on your face and shoulders syncs the entire triune brain. The sensory nerves in the skin relay the information to the higher centers at a number of different spots throughout the reptilian brain (pons and medulla) and at the junction between the reptilian brain and spinal cord (spinomedullary junction). During your walk, the sensations may change from pleasurable to uncomfortable with the rapidity of a passing cloud (should I take the sweater off or put another layer on?) and the limbic lobe becomes involved. The signals are sent up to the parietal lobe of the neocortex to sort it all out.
Listen to music (and maybe even learn to play)
Listening to, or playing, music provides myriad brain benefits. Amongst other benefits, scientists have ascribed the following to music: improvements in cognitive (thinking) and memory function, reduction in anxiety, elevation of mood, improved alertness during the day and more peaceful sleep at night. (https://www.facebook.com/marcarginteanu.md/posts/161598351845063)
Music also can help you get the triune brain in sync: the melody enters through the reptilian brain at the pons and medulla, it activates the hippocampus of the limbic system as it elicits memories and stirs emotions, then the signals travel on to the auditory area of the neocortex (temporal lobe) for civilized reflection.
Listening to music has special synchronizing effects that strengthen the bond between the limbic system and neocortex. When you listen to your preferred music, regardless of the genre, you experience profound personal thoughts and memories. This occurs because the functional connections between far flung areas of the neocortex (frontal, parietal and temporal lobes) and limbic system (hippocampus) is activated. Much of the synchronization occurs through one specific circuit, called the default mode network, which is crucial during internally-focused thoughts.
Listening to music also helps to synchronize downwards, from the limbic system to the reptilian brain. Listening to an old, familiar tune often fires up the limbic system and elicits powerful memories. When the feeling transcends memory, as when listening to an old rock anthem brings you back to the first concert you attended with your spouse, you really feel as if you were there again (young and wild again). Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate may change and your pupils may dilate as the limbic system gets in tune with the reptilian brain.
As you might expect, playing music or singing is even more beneficial to the brain than listening. Playing instruments, especially drums and piano, helps sync the triune brain and also strengthens the underlying circuitry. The cerebellum of the reptilian brain is involved in the motor memory and coordination required to play an instrument. Scientists have reported that, after 6 months of training, structural changes were observed in the hippocampus (memory) of the limbic system. Music is, in many ways mathematical, requiring interpretation of arcane symbols and computation of relationships between notes. This is the domain of the frontal lobes of the neocortex. Thus, all 3 brains are involved and working in unison, which results in synchronicity.
Musicians have enhanced neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire itself). This ability, especially in the neocortex, allows musicians’ brains to sync more readily and completely. Musical performance helps the brain take advantage of the plasticity of the neuronal (brain cell) circuits that integrate the motor, sensory and cognitive systems. Researchers report increased functional connectivity and circuit plasticity throughout the neocortex:
One circuit, called the arcuate fasciculus, connects the auditory and motor regions (neocortex responsible for hearing and movement). Those adept at music also develop powerful circuitry through the intraparietal sulcus between areas that connect sensory regions of the brain to creative thought centers (multimodal integration regions). Both drummers and pianists have been reported to have more vigorous connections across the corpus callosum (bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the neocortex). This allows the right and left halves of the brain to keep in rhythm. Additionally, musicians have more efficient connections within the frontal lobe (executive function area of the neocortex). Repeatedly practicing and associating motor actions with specific sound and visual patterns (musical notation) strengthens anatomical connections between the sensorimotor network and auditory-motor network. All of this adds up to a coordinated and efficient neocortex in the brains of musicians.
This finely tuned neocortex then reaches down to get in sync with the limbic system and the reptilian brain. The memorization involved in playing and practicing gets the neocortex in tune with the limbic system. The continuous multisensory feedback must pass through the brainstem, thus getting the neocortex in sync with the reptilian brain.
Meditation has been shown to be good for your brain in several respects. (https://www.facebook.com/marcarginteanu.md/posts/252906096047621). Meditation reportedly increases the grey matter throughout the neocortex and limbic system of healthy people’s brains. Researchers have also discovered that meditation can reverse the atrophy in the brains of patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias).
Meditation can also help sync the triune brain. When you meditate, you begin with focus on breath. Focus is the domain of the neocortex, mostly the prefrontal lobes. Breathing is controlled by the reptilian brain (the medulla oblongata). Memories or emotions (limbic system) often intrude on your meditation. For successful meditation you have to recognize the validity of these feelings but let them go. All 3 brains are involved and working together, which allows synchronization.
More specifically, meditation strengthens the bonds between neural networks. The brain has multiple networks that are far apart, but work together as functional units for specific tasks. These functional units are called brain networks. Meditation has been shown to enhance brain network integration (different parts of brain work together). One specific network that encompasses all 3 brains is called the salience network. The salience network involves widespread areas. These include: the insula (sensory processing, self-awareness, and emotional guidance of social behavior) of the neocortex. The cingulate cortex (neural interface between emotion, sensation and action), which acts as a bridge between neocortex and limbic system. The amygdala (memory and emotion) of the limbic system. The substantia nigra (regulation of movement) and tegmental area (motor planning, motor control and pleasure) of the midbrain (reptilian brain). Thus, the brain bonding of meditation leads to the synchronization of the triune brain.