The Upstairs & Downstairs Brain

Advances in neurosciences continue to inform our understanding of what makes us human, and perhaps even more importantly, how we interact with each other. In this week’s post I recommend two excellent speakers and experts in the field of neuroscience to you, Dan Siegel and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

We have passed through many periods of popular assumptions about the brain and the mind, including the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that humans are born void of knowledge and acquire ideas and wisdom over time from the world in which they operate. And, until a few years ago, we believed that the wiring of our brains was pretty much determined and complete within the first few years of life. Advances in techniques for studying the brain, in recent years, have shown that development continues well into adolescence (and beyond), particularly in the pre-frontal cortex.  During this period of development an especially important process takes place. Synaptic pruning. Underused synapses and connections in the brain are pruned, just like weak or dead branches on a rose bush are cut away.  This is a vital phase of development of the brain, during which connections that are used are strengthened and those which are not are lost. Neurons that fire together wire together. (See also previous post on this subject: The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain – March 2012)

Examples of this key stage of development are described wonderfully In this TED talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, where she demonstrates, among other things, why the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives is linked to both structural and functional development of the adolescent human brain,  These findings have important implications for education in general, as well as for interventions such as teenage counselling and coaching of young people.

In this second, and related, video link, Dan Siegel, the author of Mindsight, describes how connecting your right hemisphere to someone else’s right hemisphere, when they come to you with a concern, or in distress, provides an opportunity to connect on an emotional level, before entering into any problem solving (which is of course a left hemisphere and rational activity).

This may seem obvious, but how many of us are still drawn to trying to ‘fix’ problems for people?  We do not like to see people in distress, we want to help, and the way we think we can help is to make it right – with a solution.

We know at least two reasons why this is not a good approach.

First, the person at that point in time is not receptive to solutions and fixes. Their emotional state is such that the limbic system (their downstairs brain) is in control. The limbic system does ‘not do problem solving’ – it deals in more basic survival activity – e.g. fear, anger, shame, disgust, sadness – and the only way to relate, and hope to connect with those emotions, is to engage the other person through right brain activity – displaying and offering empathy, vulnerability and understanding. No fixes.

Second, even when their brain activity returns to the surface (the upstairs brain) and their pre-frontal cortex is back in control, people are more likely to be committed to and act on solutions that they have shaped and owned. As such, even when you do allow your left brain to start getting involved, it is important you keep ‘logical and rational’ intervention to a minimum. The ideas and solutions that are most likely to succeed are the ones that emerge from the other person’s feelings and thinking.

What are your views on how developments in neuroscience can help us improve in how we handle human relationships?  What implications does it have for leadership development and coaching?

If you would like to understand more about how neuroscience can help in coaching, or would simply like to discuss ways that you or your teams could benefit from the latest thinking in this area, please do get in touch. Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to contact you for an initial chat.


19 thoughts on “The Upstairs & Downstairs Brain

  1. Hi Louis – some really interesting stuff. Not sure about Neuroscience helping us to understand what being human is all about – I might have said – helping us to understand how our brain/mind works? – I think there is quite a bit more to being human than our mind.
    Enjoy reading your work – thanks

    • Hi Charlie – thanks for that comment. You’ve got me really thinking now. It will be good to hear from others on this one too, as I guess it is a pretty big philosophical – as well as neurobiological – question. Have you dipped in to the book by Norma Doidge (The Brain that Changes itself)? It’s a fantastic read – and opens up many big questions in this whole area.

      • Hi Louis
        Haven’t read the Brain that changes itself – it sounds interesting though. I am exploring the more spiritual side to human existence and wondering how the influence of this part of me affects who I am. This exploration is taking me down the route of growing my awareness. I find that once I am aware that I am responding in a certain way (which may well be explainable by neuroscience) I seem to have control from a point outside my normal frame of reference.

      • Hi Charlie,

        That sounds like a great exploration you are on. I guess it doesn’t matter which route you take, so long as some self-discovery emerges. And, who knows, some of those different branches might join up further along the path. I suppose what you do with that awareness is the most important thing – good luck with the journey you are on. Do you have any good initial introductory references that you’d recommend in the area of spiritual understanding of the human condition. I suspect there are many, but I am thinking, where would you start to explore this – especially if one is not starting from a religious or faith based perspective?

      • Hi Louis
        I have enjoyed reading Stuart Wilde’s books – The Force and Affirmations should give you some food for thought. Both available on Amazon.

  2. I personally have found neuroscience very helpful in helping me work through my own behaviours. For example, understanding that when strong emotions are in play, it is my amygdala that is aroused, helps me relativise and deal with them, especially when I realise that I can direct my pre-frontal cortex to send calming neurological signals to the aroused amygdala, if I so choose. This does not preclude feeling and accepting when there is a knot in my plexus, which may be caused by that very arousal. Again, speaking personnally, understanding the function of the brain and its influence on the body, joined up with practicing mindfulness (of thoughts, emotions, and body), have been of immense help to me.

    • Great to hear from you Guy. I hope you are well. Thanks also for your valuable comments. It is truly amazing (and always a source of great fascination to me) that having even a basic understanding of what is going on inside our heads, can actually help us to redirect activities (perhaps by conscious focus, mindfulness, physical exercise …..etc) and change and manage our emotional state. Fantastic that you are having success in achieving this.

      • Oh, and watch out – there is more to come on this fascinating topic in next week’s post – due out sometime around 12 Oct. Be great to get your views on that one too.

  3. Hi Louis, I’ll add another distinction to Charlie’s. I don’t consider the brain and the mind to be the same. A gross analog might be that the brain is the hardware and the mind is the software that rins on it. But even that is clumsy. The brain is physical matter and location. There is evidence that the mind is not confined to the brain or even to the body.

    While I’m very pleased that neuro-science research and application is making huge strides, my fascination remains on mind, patterns of the mind, and accessing and knowing mind.

    • Thanks for your comments Christopher. I appreciate all views and opinions, as this is the way that advances in our thinking progress – by having differing views and opinions. I am excited by the progress that is being made in our understanding of how the brain works, but not just at a ‘mechanical or chemical’ level. It’s role in emotions, behaviours, moods, thinking, cognition, senses and so on. I am not convinced that our advances in this area will necessarily come with major breakthroughs, but more likely by a gradual change in how we use (and understand) words. Our collective meaning and understanding of cognition, emotion and probably mind will evolve over time I suspect. I have another related article coming out at the end of next week. I would love to hear your views on that one too.

  4. Pingback: Silencing the left brain | Gyro Consulting Services

  5. Wow, incredible blog format! How lengthy have you been running a blog for?
    you made running a blog look easy. The total glance of your site is magnificent, let alone the content!

  6. Pingback: Coaching with emotion | Gyro Consulting Services

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