Generally speaking there are three mini-brains that have evolved over time, each building on top of the other to form the brain we have today. These mini-brains developed along our human chronological timeline and have different roles.
My zoo metaphor comes from the fact that scientists favor labels representing what they believe to be our animalistic past. I took the liberty to continue the trend so as to not feel left out.
The Reptilian Brain is formed from the brain stem and cerebellum and is our oldest brain. It is almost identical to a reptile’s brain, hence its name. The reptilian brain regulates basic life functions like breathing, heart rate, and respiration (from the brain stem) and balance, posture, and movement coordination (from the cerebellum). It is also responsible for hardwiring behaviors from memories—so this is where deeply rooted training information is stored and retrieved. It may also be safe to assume that this brain is a component of the subconscious mind.
The Mammalian Brain evolved some 300 million years ago, so you probably don’t remember it happening. It is called the mammalian brain because it is similar to the most evolved part of all mammals’ brains. The prominent behaviors it regulates are the fight, flight, or freeze response and our need to feed and reproduce. It is also responsible for emotional behavior and regulating chemical and hormonal activity.
When you get depressed, you can blame the mammalian brain. But you can then thank it for regulating your body temperature, blood sugar levels, digestion, hormonal balance, and other important things. The mammalian brain houses the pituitary gland, which is the master hormone gland, and the pineal gland, which regulates sleep. It also includes the hippocampus, which is your memory sorting and storing tool, and the amygdala, which sifts and filters incoming information for threats and opportunities. This sub-brain is largely responsible for the negativity bias so prominent in the human condition. The fear wolf spends most of his time lurking here and sending fear signals to the third sub-brain.
The Monkey Brain is the most recent addition to the zoo and is the seat of awareness, cognition, problem solving, and creativity. It is called the neocortex and is the “command center,” where we reason, plan, intellectualize, analyze, verbalize, and learn. It allows us to interpret events and react to them accordingly. This new brain of ours is so complex that it would do it an injustice to try to summarize it here. When someone says you are operating out of “right brain” or “left brain” thinking, they are referring to the hemispheres of the neocortex. This part of our brain differentiates us from other mammals and is one of the reasons we have such enormous potential. The frontal lobe of the neocortex is your “executive office,” where intent, focus, and willpower conspire to bring you greatness or misery. In your teens this area is not fully developed, which explains why you may have made poor decisions fueled by your emotional mammalian brain.
Many scientists like to reduce the mind and consciousness to correlates of chemical releases and electrical firings in the brain. Don’t believe them for a minute. Those are simply by-products of the mind performing the processes of thinking, sensing, perceiving, dreaming, and feeling. Your experience of a conscious mind certainly has chemical and electrical correlates, but it is a mistake to conflate consciousness with mere brain electrochemical signaling. Studies of near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences support this idea. The yogis and other Eastern spiritual traditions believe that the mind exists outside of the brain and even includes the heart, belly, and spinal column, as well as a connection to a universal intelligence of some form. I believe that consciousness transcends yet includes the matter and functions of the brain itself, though it requires the brain to function in our human form.
To connect with this mind, what I have called the witness, you must train your neocortex to acknowledge and comply with it. Only then can your witness become the zoo keeper and direct the activities of the animalistic brain. The problem is that we have largely denied the witness in our culture, instead identifying almost exclusively with thoughts in our brain as being the main thing. The neocortex doesn’t want to give up the power we have anointed it with.
Time and space loosen their hold and slow down or warp. In this manner the frontal lobe becomes your “flow activator” to allow the merge, dissolving past and future into the moment. Training so that you can activate the flow state at will does take time. The witness process and sacred silence practices are the best way that I know of to activate this training. As soon as you begin, you will note that the animals running amok in your mind take notice and line up to support you instead of fight.