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Do You Really Want Your Limbic Brain in Charge of Your Life?

How much is your “higher brain,” that is: your prefrontal cortex, really helping you make your best decisions? How can you tell? Although the answer is not always straightforward, there are indicators. “The part of the brain that is key to reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, impulse-control, creativity and perseverance is the prefrontal cortex. These functions (called Executive Functions) are needed when we have to focus and think, mentally play with ideas, use our short-term working memory, and think before reacting in any situation. [emphasis mine]” [per]

In one of my recent meditations, this question arose, with volume, that is, it was ‘loud’: “Do You Really Want Your Limbic Brain in Charge of Your Life?” I subjectively know, sometimes a few moments later than I would prefer, when my limbic brain is in charge of my behaviors. Good examples: when I give in to the craving to eat ice cream, or feel impatient with people in my world, or judge another’s behavior [as opposed to simply discerning whether that behavior is simply positive or negative], or act out in ways that are not compassionate.

People close to me will let me know when they feel my anger, even when I believe I am doing my best to “manage” it. Sometimes I get “hijacked” by my anger.

“Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.”

When I manage to control the impulses of the more reactive parts of my physiology, it is a sign that my pre-frontal cortex is mastering the urges of my limbic brain, and so mastering my reactivity and behavior. Compassion reminds me that everyone is truly doing the best they can with what they have. Not to over simplify, rather to remember that despite appearances, despite positivity and negativity, despite the inevitability of cause and effect, everyone really is doing the best they can with what they have. That remembering invokes not only compassion, it also invokes higher executive thinking and behavior.

“One way in which the limbic system has been conceptualized is as the ‘feeling and reacting brain’ that is interposed between the ‘thinking brain’ and the output mechanisms of the nervous system. In this construct, the limbic system is usually under control of the ‘thinking brain’ but obviously can react on its own. [emphasis mine]” So, armed with this knowledge, discernment becomes more important, not less, over time. Starting now, the more you learn to engage the part of your consciousness known as “witness consciousness,” that is, the part of your conscious awareness that can literally step in front of your limbic reactivity and enlist your pre-frontal executive pro-activity, and then

actually engage that witness consciousness, the more success you will have in the evolution of your world from dysfunctional to functional, the more you will get what you truly want.

There is a letting go in higher executive behavior. The need to micro manage goes away. The trust in the process of clearly defining intention, doing and acting the best we can with what we have, and then letting it go and watching what evolves, that trust deepens with practice.

I meditate, every day. Your mind, my mind, our minds are designed to have thoughts. Our minds are ofttimes busy, sometimes quiet, sometimes even calm. I do NOT require my mind to be still. When I meditate, I literally, on account of the specific meditative tools I use, get past my monkey mind. My conscious awareness expands to cognizing more of what my soul is trying to communicate to my heart and to my mind. Cognizing is when we are knowing without thinking. The cognized knowings that come, whether intuitive knowings, whether inexplicable knowings, or premonitions, can seem a mystery. I believe they come directly from the mechanisms of the soul. The mystery of premonitions are being tackled scientifically by one of my favorite MD’s, Larry Dossey.

“When Larry Dossey was in his first year of medical practice, he experienced a week of premonitions about patients, all of which came true. He had never had them before; they seemed to have come out of left field. After the sensations stopped, writes Dossey in The Power of Premonitions, ‘It was as if the universe, having delivered a message, hung up the phone. It was now my job to make sense of it-which I try to do in this book.’ …Dossey uses cutting-edge science to prove the value of what had long been considered spiritual mumbo-jumbo.”

Here are some more suggestions for getting past the limbic reactive part of your self in your world:

“Deny the drama and avoid getting caught up in gossip, what-if's and theatrical reactions (other people’s too). Drama fires up the amygdala that gets the prefrontal cortex off its game…

Find ways to express your gratitude. Gratitude activities increase positive emotions which then activates the prefrontal cortex…

Be of service and volunteer. The social and mental activity required sends blood rushing to the prefrontal cortex…

Learn to juggle. Learning any new and engaging activity fires off neurons in a positive way.

Other activities that require focus and practice such as dancing, circus arts, music, theatre and sports are predicted to significantly strengthen Executive Function.”

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