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Thursday, 23 September 2010

I Have a Theory....

In class recently and on the Summer Camp I have referenced the idea of three brains, or Triune Brain Theory (TBT). Before we get into that, just a quick word on theories in general.
I've observed that a theory is like getting new a coat. You buy a new coat and you want to wear it around town, show it off, let everyone see your nice new coat. A year later you are walking the dog in it. Two years later you are doing the gardening in it.  So when we hear of a new theory we find ways to drop it into conversation, put it into training, it becomes a prism through which we view our activities. Over time the idea either fades or becomes so ingrained in our work we don't really notice it any more

Theories help us to understand intellectually how things work (for example the role of the amygdala in fear control). But it is even more important to have a physical understanding and then feed that into the survival response. A balance must be struck  between the emotional / logical/ instinctive - that way a good theory will soak into our practice and become a natural part of our work. 

OK, having got that out of the way, let's look at Triune Brain theory. It was developed by  leading neuroscientist Dr Paul Maclean in the 1960s.  According to TBT three distinct brains emerged successively in the course of evolution and now co-inhabit the human skull. These three parts of the brain have  numerous neuro pathways through which they influence one another. This interplay of memory and emotion, thought and action is the foundation of a person’s individuality. Dr Maclean detailed the three brains as follows:

Reptilian Brain
The oldest of the three,  comprising the brainstem and the cerebellum. It controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. It is the repetitive, mechanical part of the brain, operating on instinct
There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm for something new - an enquiring mind is a healthy thing. But we should be aware of grabbing every new idea that comes along as the latest "big thing" then, in a few months time, gravitating to the next shiny idea.

Limbic System or Mammalian Brain
Emerged in the first mammals, comprising the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. It records memories of behaviours and is the primary seat of emotion, attention, and affective (emotion-charged) memories.  The limbic brain is the seat of value judgments

First assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres. MacLean refers to the cortex as "the mother of invention and father of abstract thought". In Man the neocortex takes up two thirds of the total brain mass. The cortex is divided into left and right hemispheres. The left half controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain the left side of the body. Also, the right brain is more spatial, abstract, musical and artistic, the left  more linear, rational, and verbal. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning capabilities

That, in a nutshell is Triune Brain Theory. Using it we can broadly think of three areas of the brain - the instinctive, the emotional and the logical. There is communication beween the three, but at any one time one mind can "take over" and submerge the other two.

Now the Bad News
TBT gained widespread acceptance amongst psychologists, psychiatrists and various other students of human behaviour. Neuro-biologists, however, have been less enamoured of the theory and there are various debates and discussions for, against,  or somewhere in-between. Current theories still support the basic separation, however the models have come a long way since MacLean's time - an internet search will show the latest thoughts and research

For me the value of the theory is as a systemic way of thinking about the cause of behaviour. It may be a simplification of the mechanical processes going on in the brain (of which we still know so little), but  TBT is very usable as a "map" for our purposes

Training and Reality
TBT fits nicely onto how we train, how we react to things in everyday life and our actions in a threatening situation. If, for the moment, we stick with the simplification of logic, emotion and instinct:

When learning something we are engaging our logical facilities. We are finding out what fits where, how does this move,  what happens if I do that. The ideal conditions for this type of learning are to be comfortable, not rushed, low pressure. It's basic common sense and generally how we are taught any new skill, be it physical or mental

In everday life we tend to live in our emotional brain. We smile when we see friends, swear at the driver who overtakes us, think about what's for dinner, buy your wife some flowers (actually that's a survival tip...). In terms of training we become emotional when things aren't going our way (we get upset or give up), we want to show off,  or we step outside the drill in order to "win"
Our instinct level is running under the surface all the time and gives you the occasional nudge (feel hungry, need to pee, feel tired). Under real pressure it can override the other two - usually in the guise of fight or flight. In severe cases it triggers survival instinct which can  lead to people acheiving feats they would never normally consider possible. For example  the trapped climber who amputated his own arm to escape certain death - a perfect fusion of survival and logic.

In our training  each "mind" has a role to play,  but the two that we should focus on the most are the logical and the survival. The first for learning, the second for testing. When engaged in testing work we should neither be too focussed on the "hows and whys" nor should we be working with anger or pride, but just letting the work develop.  Just like touching the hot kettle  - no thought, no emotion, just pure instinct to protect

There has to be balance though.  I first became aware of TBT around 15 years ago during my researches into the Chinese  Internal styles of fighting. Teachers like Erle Montaigue tied TBT in with the shamanistic aspects of those styles. In other cases it was there but couched in traditional / cultural terms. There are several intense practices that teach you to quickly access the so-called  "killer" mindset. They mostly involve  people putting  themselves into  trance-like states in order activate the "reptilian"  predatory aspect of the brain (hence the preponderance of tigers, snakes, dragons etc in some martial arts ).  There are many risks attached to this type of training and you have to wonder if it is really suitable or desirable for modern everyday life. Even in modern battle, harking back to tales of Viking "berserkers" Dr Jonathan Shay wrote

"If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries."    
Achilles in Vietnam

In order to maintain balance  the mammalian brain should still  be present in training -  in terms of compassion (not breaking our training partners), the social aspect (having a good laugh, being supportive of our colleagues) and in learning from each other - everyone is a teacher and a learner in class. Where it has no place is in terms of ego, pride and status, these are all counter-productive to training.

Training drills should be designed to stimulate one or more of the three minds. Something as simple as a slap in the face can be used to elicit an understanding of emotional response. Drills should be carefully organised to provide a comprehensive and progressive path from logical step-by-step gathering of knowledge through to adding in emotional and social/psychological factors through to various forms of  pressure testing to stimulate instinctive response.

 Activating the survival instinct is a challenging area of training, both for the instructor and those taking part. It is very easy for people under pressure to "stick" in the emotional mind - especially when you begin non-goal orientated sparring. It is important that the people taking part understand this. Of course an instructor is there to supervise the session but remember one of the key principles of Systema - know yourself.  Every drill is an opportunity to observe yourself in laboratory conditions and understand how you react to different stimuli. That self-knoweldge gives you the power to ensure your response is relevant and applicable to the situation. In short, you learn that you are responsible for your own behaviour.

Emotional Intelligence

There is another theory that states when we are put under  pressure we revert emotionally to a point at which we suffered extreme stress in the past. For most of us that is an incident in childhood. So people who get very emotional can return to a much younger level of emotional intelligence. You might expect a child of two to cry if he drops his ice cream. If a man of 35 did the same you would think something was wrong. Yet people behave in this way more than you might think - keep an eye out and you will see what a mean. Emotional intelligence is just another term for "know yourself". Once you become  self-aware you will become more aware of others and, as we covered in our recent body language workshop,  your communication skills will improve drastically.  For professional people this is extremely imnportant - there are a few Youtube clips showing examples of emotional brain taking over from the logical /professional  which of course leads to problems for all those involved

Don't think that "pressure" means a mugging or ninja attack. It can be as mundane as reading something on a forum - take a look around at the countless heated  arguments on every type of forum that degenerate into insult or "challenges".  If you can be that upset by somethng so inconsequential, what does that say for your self defence capabilities? Be aware of how your mindstate can be influenced. Advertising is the prime everday  example of stimulating an emotional response in order to sell (aspirational, status, conforming to the crowd, sad piano music, fancy terminology,  highlighting a fear, etc). Skilled people (or sometimes just annoying ones!) can do the same thing - be aware of it
This is a  simple view of a deep subject, but then again it doens't have to be overly complicated for our purposes. Just be aware in training which "brain" you are in. Over a period of time that awareness will extend out to rest of your activities, in the same way that the physical aspects also do. In a short space of time you will become much more aware and tolerant of the people around you - and more tolerance can only be a good thing.


  1. As someone involved in education, both adults and children,I find a great deal I agree with here, particularly self observation and an awareness of state during teaching/learning situations.Also,attempting to be aware of the states of others involved in such scenarios.
    It is something that as teachers and learners we must constantly try to improve,lest we lapse into an unthinking less observant state - easily done!
    My work with children has been a great tool for learning and I would encourage any teacher of any art to take on child education in their own sphere of learning as it is with children that changes in state mind occur so frequently and sometimes with little or no warning.
    A child has not developed the governing proccesses that [ most] adults have internalized and no longer pay scant attention to.The younger down the age range the more apparent it becomes.

    Having just finished a year teaching 4 to 5 year olds in a mixed class of around 20, I can say that I have learnt more about myself and others as regards teaching and learning than in the previous 20 years!
    Children will slip and slide from one brain state to another with a rapidity that is lightning quick and as a teacher it is very important that this is dealt with in a calm and appropriate manner.
    The little child playing happily with another one moment becomes the screaming aggressor instantly and this has a knock on effect throughout the class very quickly.
    Sometimes 3 or 4 individuals will slip into their reptilian mode within seconds of the first and then this must be dealt with.
    Whilst a raging 4 year old poses no serious threat to myself,they certainly do to other children and to be spat at kicked and punched by a child this age is no fun for an adult either.

    I found that my observational skills were being tested to the absolute maximum and this is very tiring and can leave you very fatigued at the end of a day or week.
    To myself I vowed that I would never respond in an angry state to such situations but keep myself calm and in control when faced with such provocation - after all if the teacher also slips over who is left to offer calm control?

    Over the year I managed to keep focussed on this self promise and only found myself expressing true anger where upon my reptilian brain got the better of me just two days before the end of the year.One particular boy who had severe emotional/anger issues made me see red,thankfully during the rise of this my calm self kicked in but I still felt the rush and the after effects of this rise and was disappointed that I had allowed myself to be governed, if only briefly, by my own reptilian bra
    My tai chi training is where I have learned to gain a greater degree of self observation and training like this , including systema and other forms of martial arts should be on the table for teachers working within our school system as though I may regret a moments lapse I have seen others do far worse and appear unbothered!

    The increased self-awareness of the martial practitioner has done far more for my teaching of children than I ever thought would be the case , and my teaching of 4-5 year olds has done more to improve my teaching of tai chi than I ever thought would be the case also.
    As I mentioned at the start of this little review of my "kindi" teaching, if you are involved in teaching adults and wish to gain some rapid experience of changing brain states and how to deal with them then try children , the younger you go the greater the challenge.

    On a finishing note , I recollect just two months into my year I lay in my bed and thought "what have I done , how can I cope , have I done the right thing taking on childen this age" it was a crisis of confidence , but in the end I got over it to reap considerable rewards much worth the waiting for.Give it some thought , then if you are feeling brave enough , give it a go!! TERRY GREENWELL

  2. i find it very interesting that irrespective of cultures the concept of " look within" is common. for some it is scintific, for some it is spiritual...amazing..

  3. I agree that we need to constantly look within and work on us. but can we actually change ourselves?

    I read this sentence.. " many martial artists are eager to increase their reflexes as way to shorten their response time.
    YOU CAN NOT ACTUALLY IMPROVE THE SPEED AT WHICH MESSAGES ARE TRANSMITTED BETWEEN YOUR NERVES, SPINAL CORD AND BRAIN, you can improve your ability to process and react to situations through repetitions and practice..

    and i started to wonder... that the way physical programmes are inbuilt as per individuals, which remain with you till you live, do we actually have the capability to change the inbuilt "emotional" hardware of our brain.. and change ourselves?

    Every individual has a primarily 2 types of personality characteristics ...major and minor.
    I really DOUBT whether we can change the stronger/major ones completely?permanently?

    I remember somebody saying that only humans have the capacity to change drastically, completely. a cow can never eat meat and a tiger can never behave like a cow..every other creature in the universe is pre- is only humans because of its intellect can change themselves completely..

    but let us take an example of breaking of a relation for a sensitive , emotional person..

    In case of a breaking of a relationship he/she may fully check pros and cons whether his/her head should influence or the heart. Finally when convinced, he/she takes a decision of cutting off ties which safeguards him/her from further more suffering. This may give relief to put the episode behind active mind quicker. This is using the intellect.

    But the closure of that episode in its true sense is completely dependent upon his/her pre-programmed in born emotional set up, which I BELIEVE like physical part of that individual ACTUALLY CAN NOT BE CHANGED TOO. BEING SENSITIVE, EMOTIONALLY DEEPLY INVOLVED is the QUALITY ,the CHARACTER OF that person..

    Outwardly one may get the satisfaction of conquering his/her own weakness of dealing with such situation. but for sensitive person final ruling of the head is in direct conflict with his/her core sensitive ( more listening to heart nature ) and that is bound to create a tremendous resistance. which is difficult to conquer.

    but what about the subconscious mind? the time taken to erase the episode even from a sub conscious mind is directly linked to another BASIC INBORN NATURE OF THAT PERSON WITH WHICH INTENSITY HE/SHE was there IN the relation.