Lizard, Ape, Dog

Our three brains!

As some of you will know I was recently at the Budhhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo on a five day retreat with Rob Nairn and Lucy Draper-Clarke. The retreat was titled “Taming the Wayward Mind” and focused on Mindfulness training, Compassion and Insight training.  You may wonder why use the term ‘training’? Imagine your mind is a muscle. It has become set in it’s usual habits, maybe a little sluggish and over fed. The training we do on retreat or in meditation (and yes even in Yoga) is like taking your mind to the gym and giving it green juice every morning instead of coffee. Offering it a new, alternative way of being so that it can perhaps start creating NEW habits that are healthier and lead to less suffering.

One of the Compassion sessions we had with Lucy explored our three brains corresponding with three ’emotional’ systems. I found it really useful to start to understand these in relation to the thoughts and feelings that often arise during meditation (and even when I’m stuck in traffic or involved in an argument).

Threat, Drive, Soothing

If you believe in evolution you will recognise that we still have part of our reptilian selves embedded in our brains. Surrounding this is a more mammalian brain in the limbic region and then towards the neo-cortex region is our primate brain. No – I’m not suggesting we have 3 separate brains and are all aliens! We have different regions within our brains that have evolved for different functions and have lead us to the magnificent creatures we are today! 

We can correlate these three different areas of our brains with three emotional regulation systems. Namely: Threat – Reptilian; Drive – Primate/Neocortex; Soothing – Mammalian/Limbic.

In our Western world we tend to focus more on training the Drive (Primate) and Threat (Reptilian) systems due to circumstance and often social pressures. This leaves our mammalian brains under-developed and our Soothing system unfamiliar.

So how do we start to balance things out? Both our threat and drive systems are essential to our way of life and we can’t just shut them down.  The way to balance things out is to nurture your Soothing system. Find ways that help you feel more grounded, contented and cared for.

Yoga, for example, is well known for producing Oxytocin in the body – the hormone related to our soothing system.  Going for walks on the beach with bare-feet, gardening, sitting quietly somewhere and enjoying a warm cup of tea – all these types of activities help to improve and strengthen our Soothing systems.

It’s important though to understand that smashing a bag of biscuits in your face is NOT part of this soothing system (I’m speaking from experience here…). It’s activities which are healthy, caring and kind to our bodies and minds which strengthen this system.

For further reading and info:


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