The surprising way our brain’s evolution holds us back — and how TM unlocks the mind’s full potential.
Science tells us that humankind’s evolution can be traced in many ways. One of the most fascinating angles from which to view this evolution is the progression from the predominant use of the “survival brain” in past eras of humankind to the predominant use of the “problem-solving brain” in present times.
Both “brains” have a huge impact on whether we thrive, or merely survive, in the modern world.
The Survival Brain
The “survival” brain is located at the base of the brain where the spinal cord meets the back of your head. It is technically known as the Limbic System and is made up of the Hypothalamus, the Amygdala, the Thalamus and the Hippocampus. Forget all the science for a moment and just note that these parts of the brain act together to detect danger or threats, and combined, work together to deliver the message, “fight,” “flee” or “freeze” as the predominant responses to danger:
- Stand your ground and fight
- Flee from the threat
- Freeze in place in order to not be seen by the predator.
Note that the main inhibitor of logical, rational thinking is the Amygdala whose job is to create fear and anxiety in order to stimulate the “fight” response. The byproducts of fear and anxiety are anger and violence. These emotions are seen as negative emotions in a “normal” social situation, but are also crucial factors to survival if we are engaged in a physical fight.
As one can well guess, these three options for survival do not apply to many situations in today’s much safer world compared to the world of the hunter-gatherer of thousands of years ago.
However, when you do need these emergency response messages to be sent to your body from your brain, it is crucial that they are still accessible. If your house is on fire, you need the “flee” message to come to you strongly in order to survive. So, we don’t actually want this part of our ancient DNA to stop operating, but we also don’t want these messages to be charging up our adrenals and sending messages of increasing tension to our muscle groups (preparing us for flight or fight) in preparation for us to act when there is no survival issue at stake.
This can be exhausting, and yet this is how many people operate in their daily lives.
The Problem-Solving Brain
In contrast, the predominant challenges facing us in this comparatively safer world of today are not threats to our survival. They are challenges as to how to live and work with other human beings in a manner that respects our individual needs and ensures our harmony with others. These types of challenges are complex and multi-faceted and can only be solved using our other brain, the “problem solving” brain, also known as the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain is located just behind your forehead and deals with logic and reason and team play and fairness. It is the part of the brain that can deliver a plan to solve what is best for the individual while at the same time solving what is best for the group.
When the “survival brain” is at work, the dominant message is that “my survival” is pitted against “your survival.” We see this impulse at work in many areas of life to great damage for all involved.
When the prefrontal cortex is at work the dominant message is to create a plan where we all survive together. This is the part of the brain that has led to the scientific revolution that has provided such comparative abundance for all of us on earth.
The timing of the two brains; the survival brain always reacts faster
Now, here is what is interesting: It is completely wrong to use each brain for the incorrect purpose. When the house is on fire, we need to react quickly and RUN! We don’t pause and ask: “Hmmmmm, I wonder what my options are?”
On the other side of the coin, when we are not facing a personal survival challenge; it is completely wrong to engage the survival response. For example, in business, when we run out of money for payroll, we don’t run around trying to flee from the problem. Instead, we logically examine all our options and find a way to solve the issue by either borrowing from the bank or collecting money from a customer by offering a steep discount to their invoice (or some such creative option).
But here is the kicker: the survival brain reacts to a problem ten times more quickly than the problem-solving brain. Because survival may be at stake, our human nervous system has, over the millennia, hardwired the danger reaction to be triggered almost instantly that danger is sensed. The prefrontal cortex, however, needs time to digest facts and figures and perform logic and rational examination of options before it can generate a solution.
Deciding to run takes a nano-second. Deciding to meet payroll when money is tight may take days or weeks of planning.
The survival brain is a dumb brain
The survival brain cannot distinguish a challenge from the environment as being either life-threatening or not life-threatening. It simply does not know. So, to be safe, it treats all challenges as being life-threatening. So, the sequence for the payroll dilemma noted above is this:
I discover I will not meet payroll this coming Friday.
My Limbic System (my survival brain) generates fear and anxiety as a stimulus to action because it does not know any better.
(It is not a survival issue, no one will die if we miss payroll.)
With this temporary fear response, logical thinking simply does not operate. The survival brain takes over so that the entire organism can focus on dealing with the threat to survival.
Plasma lactate will flood all my muscles preparing them to fight or run. Muscle groups will tense up (“my stomach hurts” is a common reaction when we feel challenged), breathing will get faster and more frequent, again preparing my body to run or fight.
Once the survival brain realizes there is no physical threat, it will calm down and allow the problem-solving brain to take over. This interval of time varies from person to person from just a few minutes to a few hours. Some people are so paralyzed by anxiety they cannot move to meaningful solutions for days.
That evening or a day later, this reaction has faded and is replaced by the real-life question, “How will I make payroll?”
Only when the panicky “noise” of the survival brain dies down, can the problem-solving brain kick into gear and generate the options, choose the best option and then solve the problem. So, the issue with this process is not that we are poor problem solvers, it is that we spend too much time in a “flight or fight” modality before we can get to the problem solving that we are actually very good at. We are unique and innate problem solvers as human beings, BUT we cannot actually get to the task at hand while the survival brain is telling us to run or fight.
Choosing the wrong brain
We all know what happens when we react to the message from the survival brain instead of waiting for the problem-solving brain to go to work. We flee relationships because we feel our survival is at stake instead of stopping and talking with each other about what is important to each other (the problem-solving brain at work). We harm a business competitor out of fear that our survival is at stake instead of simply improving what we offer to the marketplace. We react to many situations of confrontation from a “win-lose” perspective because our survival brain tells us “it’s us or them” instead of finding the “win-win” solution.
All of these reactions caused by the survival brain cause harm and loss to everyone. We see these “win-lose” options being played out all over the world at the government level, the societal level and at the family level. And everyone caught up in these reactions is simply responding to the survival brain being engaged at a time when only the problem-solving brain can actually find the proper ‘win-win” solution.
How do we solve this dilemma as human beings?
So now let’s give you the job of solving this dilemma. If you were given the task of solving this problem whereby the survival brain reacts and controls many decisions that actually require the use of the problem-solving brain, what criteria would you use to solve this?
- We want to keep the survival brain operational. We do want the survival brain to react quickly as it always has before to any physical threat from the environment. So, restricting the survival response down to zero is not a good option. If there is a fire, you do want to run.
- We want to reduce the panicky, anxious feeling of “survival is at stake” when it is actually not at stake. This panicky feeling leads to rushed decisions that almost always create inadequate outcomes.
- When survival is not at stake, we want to move much more quickly from the “Fight or Flight” response to the problem-solving choices to be made; from the “Oh my God, the sky is falling” to “What are my options?”.
An unusual option to help solve this problem
Interestingly enough, there is a mental and physical relaxation technique that can reprogram the way your two brains work together so that you get the most out of each brain’s contribution to thriving in the world. It is called Transcendental Meditation. This effortless mental technique, taught worldwide by professionally certified teachers, brings about a mental, emotional, and physical state that is the exact opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
The Survival Brain increases plasma cortisol and adrenaline that prepares the muscles to bunch up and prepare for physical action, to fight or flee.
Transcendental Meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce plasma cortisol and relax all muscle groups, the exact opposite response to fight or flight.
The Survival Brain increases shorter and more rapid breathing for the same purpose, getting ready to fight or flee.
Transcendental Meditation has been scientifically shown to reduce the body’s requirement for oxygen consumption and leads to an effortless pattern of longer and quieter, more relaxed breathing cycles.
In effect, when someone practices Transcendental Meditation, they are reprogramming the body’s response to survival from fight or flight to calmness, the best environment for creative problem-solving.
In addition, brain scan technology shows the survival brain functioning to be “calmed” and dampened during the practice of TM and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of all problem solving, to be enlivened.
Longevity studies show these effects to grow over time. Most clients that learn TM notice first and foremost a reduction in the anxiety that gets in the way of problem-solving and they notice a dramatic increase in their ability to remain calm under stressful and challenging circumstances. They notice at work they move to problem-solving much more quickly than their peers who are stuck too long in “OMG” reactions before they move to actually solving the problem.
These facts together show TM will do the following for your problem-solving abilities:
- Reprogram your inner response to stress and challenges from panic to calm while the challenging event is underway.
- Help you move much more quickly from “OMG, the sky is falling”, to “what are the best options to solve this problem?”
- Over the long term, help develop a problem solver who remains calm during all phases of problem-solving and thus, is able to foresee complications as they arise during the implementation of the solution.
The survival of our species
Interestingly enough, the survival brain which has been responsible for the survival of humankind for all these eons is now a hindrance to our collective survival. The issues facing the world such as pollution, energy shortages, global warming, universal healthcare, education for everyone, gender equality, etc. can only be solved by the collective use of our prefrontal cortex. The knee jerk “us vs them” emotional response of the “fight or flight” survival brain will only move us more deeply into these problems. The negative emotions of fear and anger, that have dominated so many social outcomes for generations, need to find their rightful place that belongs only to the physical survival level and not create social harm.
So, the actual survival of our species requires us to use whatever tools we can find to move in the direction of engaging our problem-solving brain more quickly and more often for every human being.
Ask your local instructor of Transcendental Meditation for more information on how you can join the problem-solving generation of young people with the first real chance in many generations to solve the problem of how to actually “to problem-solve”.