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Molly Keeton Parnell | Ph.D.
Why Neuroscience
Photo: Milad Fakurian /

A few days ago I had an experience that has become quite familiar to me. I was reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection and she made the following statement: “Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions . . .”

While she quickly moved on to talk more in depth about shame, I was stuck on her initial declaration and immediately wondered “Why? What purpose does shame serve?” I reasoned that if an emotion is actually primal, then it must fulfill some very basic function, and the most basic of our functions is our animal instinct towards survival.

It has always been my belief that people, on some level, make sense. I believe this despite the fact that it appears to be a nearly universal human experience to do things that do not SEEM to make sense. I see it in myself, and I see it in others. We constantly thwart our desires to do what is in our best good (exercise, eat a healthy diet, be more direct, have a less judgmental attitude, etc.) and then label ourselves unmotivated, lazy, or even masochistic when we do not reach our goals. I have always been curious about the underlying motivations that may not be apparent. If we say we want one thing but then do the opposite, surely there must be some reason for this.

In my fifth year of graduate school I finally came across an author who addressed this phenomenon. George Kelly says that humans prefer predictability – or a sense of control over the future – above all else. In protecting this sense of control, we may sabotage our efforts towards positive change to preserve the comfort of what is known. A person with a drinking problem may be well aware that quitting alcohol would help them in many ways (less tension at home, less trouble at work, lower chance of legal problems, feeling like a success instead of a failure everyday, etc.). Those things certainly sound good, but they are also unknowns. And sometimes the human mind will opt for a bad outcome that is guaranteed rather than an unpredictable outcome that might be good.

Kelly provided me with a framework that helped, but it was not until I met Jon Connelly and Courtney Armstrong that I really found my “A-ha”. Everything that I know about neuroscience I have learned from these two people. Understanding the way that our brains developed helps to explain what motivates them. Neuroscience highlights that sometimes what is driving us is very different than what our thinking minds are aware of.

Here is what you need to know for the purposes of this article: the vast majority of the mind’s processes – an estimated 98% – is out of our awareness and functions on the same level as a goat. The brain has evolved over time and can be divided into three main sections. The first two of these (reptilian and mammalian brains) have survival as their only concern. They control the automatic functions of the body (breathing, temperature regulation) as well as the control and expression of emotion, response to danger, and short term memory. The third and most recently evolved portion of the brain is the neo-cortex, which is highly developed in humans. The cortex excels at analysis, logic, and intellectual pursuits but is always overridden by the reptilian and mammalian brains.

Therefore, while our thinking mind may seem primary (due to our constant buzz of thoughts), it is absolutely NOT in charge. While you may find yourself pondering creative ideas, setting goals, or reflecting on an interesting book that you read, there is actually a goat behind the driver’s seat saying “danger bad, food good.”

This system works great for keeping us alive. If there is danger to our physical well-being, our more primitive instincts kick in, and we take action to increase our chances of survival. However, for humans things can go awry in two main ways. First, our brains are over-determined to notice threat, so we may mistake stress for danger or even perceive danger when none actually exists. While an argument with a good friend may deserve careful attention, it does not necessarily require the nervous system to go into overdrive, complete with racing heart and surging levels of stress hormones. Yet, we have probably all had the experience of noticing that our response is out of proportion to the situation.

A second way in which things get complicated for humans is our ability to remember, imagine, and interpret. We oftentimes look back on an event and draw conclusions based on the data we are privy to. But these conclusions are rarely accurate, especially if the situation was highly stressful.

Here is an example. One night in college I awoke to a very loud noise. A piece of the plaster ceiling in the bathroom next to me had crashed to the floor. I, however, thought an intruder was in the house and lay there frozen in fear. After some time passed with no further signs of danger, I finally felt brave enough to investigate. I quickly realized what had occurred and felt huge relief. However, over time I found myself frequently going back to the event and wondering “what if…” A situation that came only from living in an old house turned into fodder for worry. My anxiety came from knowing that in the face of perceived danger I had done NOTHING. I hadn’t hidden under the bed, run out the back door, picked up something to use as a weapon, or grabbed the phone and dialed 911. This experience created an uncertainty for me, a fear that I could not trust my instincts in the case of an actual threat. Many years later I finally learned that it had been my primitive mind that determined my response.

The human animal is so primed towards survival that it will employ one of the following responses when threatened: flight, fight or FREEZE. Because the noise was just 3 feet away on the other side of a door, my instinct determined that there was not time to flee the situation. And not having a weapon nearby, my chance of surviving a fight was not so great. But did you know that a mouse captured by a cat will just play “dead” in the cat’s mouth? By going limp, there is a very good chance that the cat will get bored and drop the mouse. Additionally, the mouse is much less likely to receive a puncture wound to a vital organ by letting its body relax rather than staying rigid (this is why people and animals instinctively void the bladder and bowels when in danger).

Our brains create emotion in order to cause an action to increase our odds of survival. We feel fear so that our bodies will become alert, and blood will go to our extremities to make it possible to run fast away from danger. We feel shame in order to prevent us from doing things that would have us ostracized from the safety of our pack and left alone in the woods (something Brene´ Brown apparently addresses in some of her other writings). We feel anger so that a surge of hormones will rush through our body giving us the strength and motivation to fight. But as humans, we look back on those emotions with judgment and label ourselves weak, needy, or overly aggressive. We tell ourselves a story based on only a fraction of the information. Part of the recovery process from a traumatic event is re-writing our interpretations to account for all of the data. This may include acknowledging that real danger existed (or even that the primitive mind believed that it did) and that we acted out of our instinct to survive.

I love neuroscience because I am in absolute awe of the human body. Learning more about the mind and its way of prioritizing seems to normalize many of our responses. I have found that this type of information gives my clients greater respect for themselves and greater compassion for their reactions. Neuroscience helps us to understand that we are programmed first towards survival and highlights the difference between choice and response. In the story I shared above, I did not choose my response. My emotional brain chose it for me, based on something I wasn’t even aware of (the freeze tactic).

If we are going to recognize the moments in which we did not have the ability to choose our response (traumatic events as well as post traumatic responses), then let us also acknowledge when we do have choice (the moments in life when we face stress but not danger). Our emotional minds prime us toward a certain type of bias and response, but we do have a degree of control. Think of it like driving a car – I don’t have power over the mechanics of the engine, but I do still determine where the car goes.

Better understanding the workings of the brain helps us to know about the vehicle that we are driving – or really the vehicle that is driving us. However, this is just a starting point because our ability to choose a reaction and then alter our brain’s response patterns is very real. In our daily lives, we can always employ techniques to help us respond in more desirable ways (commit to just listening when the boss criticizes your work rather than telling her what you really think, leave the room and take a few deep breaths when your child rolls her eyes at you). We can use our own creativity and support from friends to come up with a list of strategies that can really help in these moments of stress. There are also ways to change how our brain responds to stress. Meditation and mindfulness practice have been found to create actual structural changes in the brain. There are also certain types of psychotherapy that seem to better connect with and alter the messages from the emotional brain, such as hypnosis, Rapid Resolution Therapy, EMDR and memory reconsolidation, among others

Neuroscience may tell us why we feel unpleasant emotions, such as fear, shame and rage. And perhaps our ability to express love, compassion and altruism could simply be explained as mechanisms that connect us to our pack, better preserving our odds of survival. But what about joy, humor, creativity? I have not yet come across any scientific explanations for these uniquely human gifts, and I sort of hope that I never do. Because while you may be able to drive your car to the Grand Canyon, there are really no words to capture the experience of looking out on its vast beauty.

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