Understanding Your Brain

3-Parts of the Brain

Along with teaching educators and students the actual practices of breath, movement and mindfulness, understanding the science of what you are doing strengthens the practice as well as the degree of “buy-in.” When you begin to recognize and appreciate that YOU are able to hack into your nervous system and create real changes, it is pretty empowering (even to the most critical teenager).

Here is an excerpt from our EVERYDAY MINDFULNESS curriculum:

There are three major parts of your brain that govern your emotions, thoughts, and behavior. The most primitive part of our brain is at the bottom. We will call it the “reflexive,” or “primitive,” brain. The middle section of the brain (midbrain) is the limbic system. We can call this the “emotional” brain since it is responsible for helping us manage our emotions. The newest, largest, and most advanced portion of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. This is the “thinking” part of the brain which helps you make good decisions, remember what you were studying, calm yourself down, solve problems, get started on a project, and focus your attention. Each section of your brain plays an important role in your life, and it is helpful to understand how you can shape your brain to work for you rather than against you.

Let’s start with the primitive brain. Along with being responsible for essential life processes (beating your heart, keeping breath in your lungs, digesting food, regulating sleep patterns and other essential mechanisms), it is also responsible for keeping you safe. When external threats are present, the primitive brain prepares the body to enter a fight, flight or freeze response. As cavemen, this was a very helpful system. If chased by a ferocious tiger, you would not want to waste time planning what to do in that very moment (that would involve using your thinking brain and any delay in getting to safety would be fatal. Instead, you would want the action of fleeing or fighting to be quick and automatic in order to get to safety. Ancient stressors were very real and required changes in bodily function in order to manage, and hopefully overcome, a mortal threat.

When a fight-flight response is kicked into gear by the introduction of a stressor, the body begins to produce hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline), which create extra energy and strength in the moment. It supports your reaction with great power and force. It is as if you become super-human in the moment, however this is not a state that your body can handle frequently or for extended amounts of time. The modern day challenge is that very often, negative or dangerous experiences (such as a being chased by a tiger) are not external. 

Now there are internal “tigers,” consisting of our thoughts. When today’s stressor is perpetuated by a thought such as a worry, anger, frustration, or confusion, the body responds as if it were actually being chased. The same hormonal secretions occur, setting in motion the barrage of physiological changes, preparing you to fight, take flight, or freeze. When this happens repeatedly, we call this chronic stress. 

You see, some stress is a good thing. This is called eustress. It gets you to study a bit harder, try a bit more, push yourself beyond your comfort zone to grow, and experience life to its fullest. But when this alarm continues to ring repeatedly, it is harmful to your health and well-being. It is often the cause of feeling depressed, anxious or confused. 

Mindfulness practices help you to filter between the good stress and the bad stress. These learned practices also help you to turn on the “thinking part of your brain,” called the prefrontal cortex, which can help you rationally determine if the threat is real, or not.

Here is how the three parts of your brain work together. Within the “emotional brain,” lies a structure called the amygdala.The amygdala is designed to be super sensitive to danger or threats. It is the main structure responsible for routing information to other parts of the brain, based on your emotional state. When you experience negative emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, confusion, anxiety or boredom, your amygdala will signal your protective, primitive brain to turn on, thereby blocking any information to get to your pre-frontal cortex. In this state, no learning or problem solving or decision-making can occur. You become stuck. 

Here is an example: Suppose your day doesn’t starts off too well. You miss the bus or you get to school late. You miss some key information for an upcoming exam. To make matters worse, you are also worried one of your friends is still mad at you from a previous conversation that didn’t go so well. If you stop to notice the state of your body, you find your heart is racing. Perhaps you begin to have a headache. Your breath is quick and short. Essentially, you are stressed and potentially feeling a bit anxious. Your mind starts to ramble with thoughts about what else could go wrong today (thinking about the future). You may also begin to think about the past and recount all of the events that led to this point. 

All of these thoughts just perpetuate stressful feelings. Your day will continue to spiral downward if you don’t intervene in a positive way. What you probably didn’t know is that you do have the power to turn things around in an instantin order to become calm and focused, allowing that vigilant amygdala to get your pre-frontal cortex back online again. 

Mindful practices such as following your breath, scanning your body, and making gratitude lists all change the flow and traffic within the brain. These practices can help you calm your mind and your body, thereby deactivating the primitive brain structures. When the body and mind are calm, the prefrontal cortex is able to engage. You are better able to think clearly, make rational decisions and communicate with purpose.

Imagine how valuable that can be for both you and your students.

If you are interested in learning more about our school-based programs and how to share mindfulness practices with your school, contact . We are happy to answer any questions and determine if mindfulness practices can help you reach your district-wide goals.

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