Thinking Brain, Feeling Brain or Hidden Brain: Which One is in Control?

The many parts of the brain connect and interact in such complex and marvelous ways as to give rise to thoughts and feelings, to consciousness itself. How this comes about is unknown and would be far beyond our scope to explain here even if it was possible to do so. Nevertheless, in order to move towards optimum mental health, it will be helpful to use three metaphors: thinking brain, feeling brain and hidden brain.


Characteristics of the thinking brain

The thinking brain controls the functions of thinking, reasoning, understanding and other cognitive functions such as introspection.  As far as we know, only humans have the ability to reflect on our own thought processes.

The thinking brain is conscious since it the part that is aware of new sensations, old memories, feelings and emotions.

The thinking brain is associated with the outer, convoluted portion of the brain, the cortex.

Characteristics of the feeling brain

Because awareness takes place only in the thinking brain, you might be tempted to conclude that that is the totality of brain function. Nothing could be further from the truth. A huge amount of activity is controlled subconsciously by the feeling brain, metaphorically located in the sub-cortical limbic system

The feeling brain stores the memories, acquired knowledge and beliefs acquired over a lifetime, holding them in readiness to influence, if not determine, our thoughts, behaviors, feelings and emotions.

Characteristics of the hidden brain

There are many functions of the brain that are automatic and never brought to consciousness. They belong to the level of unconsciousness. These include regulation of bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion and temperature, among others. These processes originate in the reptilian brain, the oldest part of the brain’s three main divisions. The activities originating there are innate; they were not learned. Because these functions are never brought to consciousness, I refer to them as residing in the hidden brain.

The hidden brain is mentioned here because it also contains basic instructions for human behavior, the inbornintentions. Understanding how they influence, but not control, human behavior will be examined in a series of posts on the topic.

Feeling Brain Logic Differs from Thinking Brain Logic

Let’s consider a major difference between the conscious thinking brain and the subconscious feeling brain. Our ability to use the cortex to think, reason and use logic is a primary attribute of humanity, making us rational creatures. Whether a person has a level of intelligence comparable to Einstein’s or closer to that of a fence post, some degree of ability to use reason and logic is at their disposal in the thinking brain.

The subconscious, feeling brain, however, lacks this sophistication. Its degree of reasoning is limited to making distinctions as to whether the incoming sensation is dangerous, significant or irrelevant. If dangerous, the reaction is a defense mechanism; if significant, the body reacts consistent with its basic beliefs, and if irrelevant, the incoming sensation is ignored.

When an incoming message is flagged by a basic belief as threatening or dangerous, the ability to use reason and logic are interrupted and we leave the realm of the thinking brain to enter the domain of the feeling brain. When threatened, the primary imperative is to protect the self, and this takes precedent over our ability to think.

Albert Ellis (1913-2007), a noted psychologist, referred to some behaviors as the result of “illogical thinking.” While indeed some behaviors may seem illogical from a thinking brain standpoint, such behaviors are perfectly logical when seen as a function of the feeling brain. For example, former combat veterans who react to the sound of a slamming door are responding to a basic belief (loud noises come from life-threatening explosions) that has triggered the perception of a threat. There is nothing illogical in protecting yourself as required by the feeling brain.

The feeling brain is a harsh taskmaster when it is in control. It initiates protective measures before the thinking brain time has time react logically. When a threat emerges, one only needs to fight, flee or freeze and our rational capacity becomes superfluous. Unfortunately, the feeling brain is notoriously poor at discerning the actual degree of danger. It will sometimes drastically overreact to the slightest provocation, but at other times appear blithely unaware of imminent peril.

A question for your consideration and comment

Do you spend most of your time in your thinking brain or your feeling brain? Does the balance between the two need improving?

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