“The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10,000 other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known Universe.”
– Michio Kaku
Up until this very moment, you’ve probably gone your entire life thinking you have only one brain. That pink gobbldey-gook thingy the pathologist dumps on the scale in every episode of CSI, right? Well, hang on to your lunch, because you’re about to have a ‘the earth isn’t actually flat’ moment.
Ready? Here goes…
We humans have 3 brains, not 1.
Yup, you read that right – we have three entirely unique and wholly independent organs in our moderately-sized skulls. And what’s even more shocking is that these three brains do not act unison. They don’t consult with one another. Heck, they don’t even talk to each other! Instead they routinely battle for control of our very existence. It would make a really cool sci-fi movie, actually.
I call our three brains the Monkey Brain, Vulcan Brain, and Robot Brain. Here’s a brief explanation of all three:
Monkey Brain – Your Monkey Brain is your emotional brain. It’s the brain that falls in love (or lust) with that beautiful stranger you spot on your way to work. It’s the brain that freaks out when you’re about to give a speech in public. And it’s the brain that gets super excited when Netflix announces a new season of ‘House of Cards.’
Your Monkey Brain is the same brain you had tens of millions of years ago, back when you were just a pink-nosed, pink-bottomed chimpanzee living the cold, harsh world.
Remember those days? The endless search for food, the constant fear of predators, the never-ending compulsion to assert dominance and maintain status amongst your peers. It’s no wonder our Monkey Brains are so prone to violent outbursts and extreme overreactions. Being a monkey is like being a Kardashian – your life is just one big hot mess.
Vulcan Brain – Your Vulcan Brain is all logic and reason (surprise, surprise). It’s the brain that thinks cognitively, reads, plans ahead, and solves math equations (or, in my case, uses a calculator to solve math equations).
Our Vulcan Brain is unique to our species. It’s how our ancestors learned to use tools, which eventually led to our dominance over the entire animal kingdom. I could have just gone ahead and called it the ‘Human Brain,’ but that sounds like a slap in the face to all other animals, so I went with ‘Vulcan’ instead.
If you’re not into the Star Trek thing, feel free to substitute your own pop-culture reference. Possible examples include ‘the Benedict Cumberbatch Brain,’ ‘the Big Bang Theory Brain,’ or ‘the Not-So-Paris Hilton Brain.’
Robot Brain – Your Robot Brain is your autopilot. Remember brushing your teeth this morning? No? That’s because you were on autopilot.
This may come as a shock, but of our three brains, the one we use most is our Robot Brain. In fact, we use our Robot Brain every second we’re awake, except in rare and extreme circumstances when one of the other brains completely takes over.
For example, it’s possible to become so emotional that our autopilot actually shuts off, and our entire being is momentarily filtered through that one single emotion. Imagine winning the lottery, or walking in on your significant other with your best friend, or being a fourteen-year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Likewise, it’s possible for our Vulcan Brain to dominate to such an extreme extent that our autopilot – or Robot Brain – actually shuts off. That moment when Jack Bauer disarms a nuclear weapon on ‘24’ is a good example.
What This All Means
By now you’re probably thinking, ‘hey, that’s a neat little classification system you’ve got there, but what the heck does it have to do with anything? I mean, how am I supposed to utilize this knowledge to better my everyday life?’
You were thinking that, right?
Good. Because I’ve got you covered. The reason it’s so important to recognize that we have three brains in our skulls and not one, is because doing so helps us understand why we act the way we do.
For example, ever decide to change your morning routine? ‘Tonight I’m going to set my alarm half an hour early, meditate for 10 minutes as soon as I get up, then exercise for 20.’ Of course the next morning you hit the snooze 3 times and still end up late to work.
Or how about this example: Think of the last time you were rejected by someone you cared about. Would you say your reaction was more emblematic of Spock or King Kong?
If you’ve ever lived through the above examples (and who hasn’t?), you’ve probably kicked yourself for being lazy or hypersensitive. Well I’ve got some great news for you: You’re neither lazy nor hypersensitive (I know this, because it’s impossible for a person to be an adjective. Anyway, that’s a different post for a different time…). What actually happened was, your Robot Brain and your Monkey Brain dominated your thinking during those critical moments, which is why you were unable to make logical/rational Vulcan Brain decisions.
When you woke up at 6:30 am instead of your normal 7:00 am wake-up time, your Robot Brain was the one behind the wheel, not your Vulcan Brain. And your Robot Brain did the same thing it does every time you’re tired and you know deep down that you don’t really have to get up at this very moment – it hit the snooze. Likewise, when you got rejected by that person you cared about, your Monkey Brain took over and went full-on angry ape, never giving your Vulcan Brain a chance to assess the situation and reflect on the best course of action.
It’s our Vulcan Brains that usually make the better long-term decisions (not always, but usually). Our Vulcan Brain would have risen at 6:30 and meditated just like we planned. Our Vulcan Brain would have reminded us that one person’s rejection does not define us in any way, and therefore shouldn’t affect our thoughts, beliefs, or actions.
Unfortunately, our Vulcan Brains are the least powerful of the three (which, incidentally, is because they’re the newest; they’ve only been around for 2.3 million years. That was when chimps evolved into Homo Habilis, the first of our ancestors to attain anything similar to what we now call a Frontal Cortex). The Robot Brain and Monkey Brain have been around for much, much longer, thus they are far more powerful.
The 3-brain paradigm is important because it clarifies why we act certain ways in certain circumstances. It isn’t us, it’s our brains. Maybe that revelation seems like splitting hairs, but it should actually have a profound impact on how we judge ourselves. To understand that YOU are not lazy or hypersensitive, instead your Robot Brain or Monkey Brain make you act lazy or appear hypersensitive, is the first step to reevaluating how you feel about yourself and your past failures. It’s rational to beat yourself up over things when you assume that YOU are the one who did those things; much less rational when you realize that it wasn’t you after all, it was merely one of your three brains – and not the one that makes the best decisions.
So the moral of this whole story is: Quit beating yourself up over past actions! YOU aren’t the one making the decisions which led to those actions. That’s because THERE IS NO SINGLE YOU. There are three You’s – each with the power and ability to control your actions at any given time.
The inevitable next step is to ask ourselves how we can control – or at least influence – which brain does the thinking for us. That is a process that takes much time and deliberate practice. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll begin to see rapid changes in your productivity and personal development. I’ll cover all of that in my next post.
For now, I’d love to hear some of your Monkey, Vulcan, or Robot Brain stories. Feel free to leave one in the Comments section below.
John Freund is an author and improv comedian. His first e-book, ‘Fake it with Confidence: How to use Improv Comedy to be More Confident in Social Situations’ is available on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/johnfreundebook1
You can also visit John at his blog: selfimprovementin60seconds.wordpress.com