Police Psychology | Appreciate the Limits of Your Cerebral Cortex When It Comes to Managing your Emotions
by Doug Gentz, Ph.D
Guest Blogger – Psychological Services, Tulsa, Oklahoma
People have at least three distinct levels of anatomy and function inside their heads. The top layer, less than a quarter of an inch thick, is the “human brain,” also called the cerebral cortex. This is the part of your brain that is responsible for all your higher functions – conscious thought, logical reasoning, and narrative language. It makes it possible for you to consider the past and plan the future. This type of brain structure and function is found only in humans.
The second level of your brain, which takes up most of the space in your head, is the Limbic System. All mammals have similar limbic systems and they work the same way and do the same functions in cats, dogs, cows, and people. You can think of it as your “dog brain.” Your dog brain has a limited understanding of language. Although it can’t talk or understand reason, it can respond and react to language as a type of signaling. Research suggests that most dogs can recognize up to about 200 words.
Two other really important things happen in the limbic system – memory formation and emotions. Sensations are sorted into memory by the hippocampus. Emotion is generated in the limbic system and intense emotion is triggered by a structure in the limbic system called the amygdala. These two limbic structures are similar in form and function in all mammals.
The third level of your brain is the brain stem. Humans, dogs, birds, and lizards all have a similar brain stem. You can think of it as your “reptile brain.” This is the part of your brain that maintains your body temperature, influences heart rate and respiration, and registers sensations, including proprioception. Although it is responsible for your state of consciousness (awake or asleep), it has no sense of self. it has no emotion, and it has no understanding of language.
Emotions are generated in your limbic system (dog brain) and are always entangled with sensations from your brain stem (reptile brain). For instance, anger is linked to activation of the amygdala and commonly associated sensations might include muscle tension in the jaw, increased heart rate and respiration, and a loss of peripheral vision.
The first strategy for managing emotions is “top down.” You use your rational human brain to reason with your emotional dog brain – this strategy will work up to a point, especially if the emotion is not very intense. Everyone naturally tries it first and often keeps using it long after it’s clear that it’s not working. At even moderate levels of emotional activation, trying to talk yourself down with logic is like trying to reason with a child or an intoxicated adult. The “dog” might hear the words but will not care about the message.
The second strategy is a two step, “bottom up” approach using your human brain as a coach to help your reptile brain calm down. Step one is just passively and curiously noticing the sensations associated with your emotion. Step two is modifying your physiology by consciously controlling your respiration and muscle tension. As you pay mindful attention to your sensations while modulating your breathing, the sensations and corresponding emotion will begin to evaporate. This is the “go to” strategy when you need to calm down and you notice that reasoning with yourself isn’t working.
Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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