One of the most simple tools for understanding the brain is Dr. Siegel’s “Brain Hand”:
According to Siegel, the pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that is capable of being rational – of helping us think through problems, reflect on previous actions and make new decisions. Awareness of the world around us – as well as ourselves – comes from this part of the brain. In Siegel’s model, the middle fingers represent this pre-frontal cortex.
Hidden under those fingers this model is our thumb, representing our limbic or emotional system. It’s where our motivation, attention and focus are stored, and it affects the way in which we remember things.
Under the thumb is our palm, which Siegel equates to our brain stem. This is where our brain controls things like sleep, heart rate and respiration rates. Our brain stem also interacts with our limbic system, and it can set up a reaction loop of anger or fear that can be very difficult for us to override.
And finally the brain sits on top of the spinal cord (our wrist in Siegel’s model) which gives us input from all over the body, and allows the body to influence and affect the decisions going on in the brain.
(Yes, there are other elements to the brain, but we’re going to stick just with these ones for the time being …)
And the thing I want us to notice is that the ideal situation is that our pre-frontal cortex sits well over our limbic system and brain stem. That it provides the self-awareness, rationality, reflection and decision-making capabilities necessary for us to be and do the things that we want to do.
But sometimes – especially if we’ve been through hard things or are trying to get through hard things – we ‘flip our lid’. The pre-frontal cortex figuratively flips up, leaving our limbic system and brain stem running the show or in the driver’s seat.
And so one of the best strategies for us as we try to get to know our minds is to become mindful.
‘Mindfulness’ has become a bit of a buzz-word these days, but one very simple way of thinking about it is anything you do that helps you to be present and aware of what is going on right now.
So you might sit and take five long, deep breaths when you get in your car after work, before driving on with your day.
You might slowly drink your tea or coffee on the front porch, allowing yourself to become completely absorbed by the tastes and smells and sounds of the early morning.
You might start a daily reflective journal, where you write down one high and one low for each day, and ask yourself, ‘why was that so good’? Or ‘why was that so hard’?
Each of these exercises (and the many, many more that are available) are exercises in training your pre-frontal cortex to be mindful and aware of what’s going on when things are going okay, so that, when things get hard, your pre-frontal cortex is ready to do what it needs to do to get you through those tough moments, too!