The Brain 101
The human brain is the most complex known thing in the universe. While still poorly understood, we’ve learned more about it in the last 15 years than the previous 15 million. What we now know can be cognitively applied to improve Brain integration and mental well-being.
The human brain has 3 primary areas of functionality, listed in evolutionary order. They are the Brain Stem, Limbic System, and Cortex.
The Brain Stem is the earliest evolved section; Often referred to as the reptilian brain. It’s at the bottom, right above the spinal cord and controls the most basic levels of perception and baser instincts such as fear, anger, fight or flight.
Above the Brain Stem is the Limbic System, evolved in early mammals. This area dictates emotional feelings and plays a large role in inter-species attachment and social perception.
The final, and most important piece is the Cortex which evolved in primates, but grew with humans. The Cortex controls rational thought and memory orchestration; It controls everything from language, to raw 3-d images created from sensory perceptions. My ability to write these words and yours to understand them is a result of the Cortex. It also connects and integrates all other parts of the brain, giving it the power to regulate emotional torrents and control baser instincts.
When emotions or basic instincts heat up, energy is drawn from the Cortex to the lower regions. As a result, logic and rational thought suffer. However, in what appears to be a trainable skill, the Cortex is capable of releasing a protein compound that inhibits these lower regions from taking over energetically. The act of perceiving and understanding these shifts in brain energy allow us to train our Cortex to better respond to them. See: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma-Aminobutyric_acid)
The Cortex can be trained to significantly increase in functionality and integration ability. The process in which it changes via new neural pathways and connections is known as neuroplasticity and there are four proven ways to activate it: physical activity, emotional arousal, focused awareness, and learning new things.
We can use our hands as a reasonable model for the Brain. The bottom of the palm is the Brain Stem. Fold your thumb into your palm as if to make a fist. The thumb represents the Limbic System. Now clinch your fist. The fingers overlapping both other regions represent the cortex.
I find this knowledge to be very useful to both understand emotional states of others, and maintain a constant state of mental awareness and improvement.
The Brain is fascinating.
Reccomended reading: Mindsight by Dan Siegel, Neuroscience meets mindfulness.