The neuroscience underlying our basic survival instinct includes the brain’s hardwired response to “perceived” threat.
Information about our environment (let’s say visual information about what could be either a harmless stick or a poisonous snake) reaches a part of the brain called the amygdala in just milliseconds. The amygdala then triggers a physical “emotion” response before we are even consciously aware of what we are seeing. This is a good thing. We need to be able to react quickly if this “twig” is truly a threat to our wellbeing like a deadly snake.
Escape now! We breathe faster, our heart races, and blood starts flowing so we are capable of the well-known fight-or-flight response. We may not have time to put things into perspective, evaluate the context of the situation, or apply a little “self regulation” before we must act to survive.
The contextual information processing pathway in the brain that permit “thinking” and “feeling” (through the hippocampus and neocortex) is pretty complicated and takes some time to put all of the pieces of the situation together. It’s ok to overreact to the sight of a twig, because we would rather be safe than sorry, right? Our hardwired response is to minimize danger, and then, and only then, can we focus on other things like seeking out pleasurable experiences and maximizing reward.
The core motivation to ‘minimize danger-maximize reward’ is the principle that underlies the essential organization of the brain. It drives our Emotion, Thinking, Feeling and Self Regulation processes. At the most basic level we have a drive to first keep safe, and then seek rewards and pleasures. This principle is reflected at more abstract levels, in the type of job we strive for, and the relationships we nurture.
Underlying genetic disposition and brain-body functioning each contribute to how our behavior is shaped to avoid danger and maximize rewards.
Emotion processing, as we are now aware, occurs very rapidly, in a fifth of a second. Rapid emotion processing occurs via lower-level brain networks that can pick up signals of potential danger or reward without you being aware of them. These networks trigger automatic emotional reactions without needing to communicate with the higher levels of your brain. The emotion signals we rely on most are the facial expressions of emotions shown by others. We read and react to these constantly in our communication with others.
Thinking processes are mostly about ‘facts’. They incorporate key elements of attention (focus, selective attention), memory (working memory and recall) and executive functions (planning and flexibility). These elements are needed to reflect on the consequences of our actions and to plan ahead. Brain systems involved in Thinking include feedback between higher and lower-level networks. This feedback also gives us awareness of what we are attending to, remembering and acting on. Thinking processes typically show a U-shaped change over the lifespan that is related to brain changes. Yet, they are also impacted by training and experience throughout our life.
Feelings are about how we experience our Emotions and the influence on our Thinking. Changes in the activation of our brain and body functioning are the biological basis of our Feelings, and how we interpret and label those Feelings. For instance, increases in your heart rate go along with an experience of stress, while reductions in heart rate are associated with relaxation. The degree of experienced stress tends to be similar across countries. But, all of us also have the capacity to use training to enhance our positive feelings, and reduce the negative.
Self Regulation is about how we manage our Emotion, Thinking and Feeling and the associated brain processes. If we align these four processes we may optimize our brain health and how we adapt to our world. We have a natural bias to expect more negative than positive outcomes. Enhancing our positivity bias is associated with a greater capacity for resilience, effective communication and productivity. People with a Positivity Bias tend to be more optimistic. If the negativity bias becomes exaggerated, it may increase risk for stress and poor brain health. It is associated with a more pessimistic outlook. Key elements of Self Regulation include the regulation of emotion processes, goal setting and emotional intelligence. The regulation of emotion tends to improve with age, highlighting how experience and practice is an important contributor to how we manage our wellbeing.
You can optimize your Brain
One of the fundamental findings to emerge across the research is that the brain is dynamic – it has ‘brain plasticity’. Our genetic inheritance contributes usually no more than 40% to our brain and behavior. There is a lot of room to actively shape the trajectory of your Emotion, Feeling, Thinking and Self Regulation processes. There is also increasing evidence that training and experience can shape the way our individual genes are expressed.
This means that understanding your own brain is the essential step to shaping it to be the best possible brain for you and your future.