The six chapters in this section of the book, Imago Clinical Theory, look at life, therapy, and relationships in this new quantum universe of ours.
Chapter 3: Our Connecting Brain
Chapter 3 begins with a look at our complex human brain and its role in “the drama of couplehood”. The authors don’t pretend to provide more than an introduction to the history of our interest in the human brain which stretches back at least 2500 years, but their conclusions from what neuroscientists tell us about the brain today will be to say:
“that our brains were shaped by our interaction with our caretakers; that environmentally shaped brain shows up in adulthood and determines the quality of all relationships, but especially intimate ones. Our relationships will sustain or change the operation of our brains, for better or worse, and since our brains are plastic (i.e. changeable) we can use our relationships to change our brains.” (p.67)
Imago & The Brain
In explaining the workings of the brain, the general trend is to think of the structure of the brain as including “1) the lower brain, 2) the central brain, and 3) the upper brain”. Contemporary neuroscience agrees that those structures of the brain have functions native to them but they are not static, which challenges an older view that would limit certain functions to certain regions of the brain.
Rather, there is a “distribution of functions throughout the brain, both recognizing the brain’s complexity and its capacity to change (neuroplasticity).” (p.68) In other words, “the brain is not a static machine but a dynamic, living, adapting, growing, organism in constant interaction with its environment.” (p.69)
The Brain and Body
Also, although we might talk about the brain and body as separate entities, they are “as interconnected and interdependent as our fingers are with our hands and as we are with the universe. … The brain and body are in constant communication sending messages back and forth to adjust and readjust the feedback they produce upon which both are dependent for their balanced homeostatic functioning. Thus, for example, the body ‘knows’, even before the higher brain processes it, whether someone who is walking a little too closely behind us is dangerous.”. (p.70)
Given all this, the different parts of the brain do have functions particular to them. I’ll look at the lower and mid-brain today and the upper brain next week.
While it is always in constant communication with the other parts of the brain, the primary function of the lower, primal brain is to ensure our physical survival,
Lower Brain Function
The lower brain “is hard-wired for survival and is programmed to ensure the organism’s safety. It operates automatically as if on autopilot, requiring no conscious input from the upper brain … what drives the lower brain, first and foremost, is the irresistible power of the survival directive – that is, the compulsion to say alive.” (p.71)
Central Brain Function
The central brain or mid-brain, known as the mammalian or limbic brain developed later. Evolved mammals with this newer portion of the brain, like cats. elephants, and humans, nurture their young, for example, whereas snakes and crocodiles don’t.
The central and lower brain are generally lumped together as the “old brain”, and it tends to classify incoming stimuli “as something that is either safe or dangerous. ‘Safe’ simply means something that will not hurt, harm, or kill us; dangerous, of course, means precisely the opposite. Note that the threat of ‘hurt,’ ‘harm’ or ‘kill’ may be conveyed to the primitive brain even when the harm is only emotional, not physical.” (p.72)
“Keep in mind,” the authors tell us, “that these self-defenses are evolutionary and finely honed to work in the wild, yet they tend to be just as operative in our civilized world, even when there is no objective danger. But perception is everything, and if the primal brain perceives something as dangerous, no matter what it really is, it is dangerous. The imagination is as powerful as, if not more powerful than, experience.” (p.73)
The Problem & Solution
And that is the crux of the problem. If your brain senses danger, it will defend itself. Period. You are not going to change 500 million years. Here is a challenge for you. Think about how relationships are often depicted in our culture: movies, TV, those magazines at the check-out counter, and in real life.
But think about it from your old brain point of view. If I attack you, or yell at you, or don’t talk, or shut down or make fun of you, what are you going to do except defend yourself? You see it everywhere, and all I am saying is: it doesn’t work. Why? Because it doesn’t feel safe. If you want a great relationship you are going to have to learn to talk to your partner in a safe way. (Which the authors will explain in Chapter 9) Safety is the key.