The Baby Brain

🎡🎡🎡 The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside…Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried. 🎡🎡🎡

If you’ve seen the movie “Frozen” then you’re probably familiar with this line from the song “Let it Go”. It’s the part in the movie when Elsa just can’t keep the secret of her special ability any longer and just needs to “Let it Go.”

Whenever I hear that part of the song though, it reminds me of something we teach clients about at Brain Fit. It’s a theory called the Triune Brain Theory by Dr. Paul McLean. Check out this picture:

In this model, we look at the brain as having three levels that develop over time. At the bottom in red, is the the brain stem- or what we call the “baby brain”. We call it that because it was the first to develop as a baby in utero and in the first year of life. 

The baby brain serves a few different roles. First, it’s where the sensory information (apart from the sense of smell) comes in. Ideally, this information integrates like a beautiful tapestry (ever heard the term “sensory integration??) so that the brain can process the information effectively. The brain stem, or “baby brain” also governs survival mechanisms such as breathing and digestion and it is where the primitive reflexes are housed. Hmmm….where have we heard about primitive reflexes before?!?

Next, we have the part that is colored green, the “emotional brain”. This is the part of the brain that houses the amygdala- that part of the brain that has an important role in handling emotions and behaviors. Hence the name- “emotional brain”. The emotional brain’s role is to decide whether information coming in is safe, or a “threat”. If it’s considered safe, neurotransmitters and hormones are released to enhance our ability to process the information at a higher level- the blue part that we call the “thinking brain”. 

However, if the information that comes in is deemed a “threat”- different hormones are released and the information is diverted to the baby brain. This is when we “react” instead of “respond”. In other words, the Fight/Flight/Freeze response gets activated. And- since the reflexes are housed in the baby brain, if they aren’t fully integrated (or finished) it can lead to an instability in the lower part of the brain. This puts us more at risk (or vulnerable) for spending more time in that “Fight/Flight/Freeze response.

So just to review:

Red: Baby Brain,  Green: Emotional Brain,  Blue: Thinking Brain

Now you’re probably thinking that this is all great information, but how exactly does this all fit in to Frozen, Elsa and a swirling storm inside?

Well you see, that green part of the brain- the emotional brain- is where that “swirling storm inside” might happen. We talk to kids (and adults alike) about how sometimes we get “stuck” in that green part of the brain. We get stuck in that emotional brain and it becomes the “swirling storm inside”. 

And when that happens? What do we do? Well, we get “bopped out of the loop” for one. And please- if you don’t understand that reference, I highly suggest you read this post of mine about the Learning Loop

But basically, instead of being able to “respond” to the information, we “react”. We get upset, have a meltdown, get frustrated, withdraw- any of those behaviors that indicate that its the “baby brain” running the show, rather than the “thinking brain”. Those Fight/Flight/Freeze reactions come flying in and take over, instead of letting us use our thinking brain to rationalize, reason and access our tools. 

That’s why trying to talk someone through a situation when their baby brain is in control, or when they are stuck inside that “swirling storm” in the emotional brain isn’t fruitful. They can’t access their thoughts- or their strategies. They are down in that baby brain-just trying to survive!

The next question, of course, is to ask: “What do we do to help?” Well, a few things. First, remember that by integrating the reflexes we are strengthening the baby brain. This provides a more stable “foundation” so that when the information comes into the brain it can be processed more effectively. Secondly, we teach our clients movements that can help them to come out of the “swirling storm” of the emotional brain. Simple, intentional movements that don’t require talking and can be done easily by the person as well as others that can be done when given assistance from someone else. 

I loved the movie “Frozen”, I really did. But I also felt bad for Elsa. Poor thing was stuck in her emotional brain and the only thing she could do was live with that “swirling storm inside”. For years…and years!

I want my clients to have ways out of that swirling storm. I want them to have ways out, and even better yet- a more stable “baby brain” in the first place so that they don’t even end up in that storm in the first place!It’s possible. It happens. This work- works.

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