Did you know your brain has different parts? Of course, you probably know that your brain has different physical parts that all work together, but did you know that you can choose which “brain” to fuel and to work from?
I didn’t know about this concept until recently and I find it fascinating. For a long time, I’ve believed that we can choose to work from our highest selves or lowest selves, but when I learned about this concept of 4 different brain parts or levels, it really helped clarify this belief for me. I’ve since found that it also helps many of my clients better understand their own motivations and choices, and how they can take a truly conscious approach to their impact and leadership.
What are the 4 brains?
Brain 1 – The Reptilian Brain
This is our most basic and life-sustaining brain. It regulates critical body functions like breathing, body temperature, reflexes, blood pressure and so on. This is the part of the brain that keeps us alive when we’re first born and can’t make conscious decisions on our own. It compels our hearts to beat, our lungs to breathe, our mouths to feed, so that we can grow and thrive.
Brain 2 – The Mammalian Brain
This brain is just above our reptilian brain and is responsible for what, in evolutionary biology, is often referred to as “The 4 F’s”: fear (or sometimes fleeing), fighting, feeding and fornication… though some biologists will use an alternative F word for that last one ;) These are known as our primal drives. Interestingly, the mammalian brain is also where our emotions are held. Think about it. These primal drives are all about survival, so they need to be directly connected to feelings of anger, fear, joy and comfort. They need to worry about scarcity, hold onto grudges, and create intense feelings of avoidance related to negative experiences. It also needs to remember where we felt safe and well fed so we can retreat back. The mammalian brain doesn’t have time for logic. It leaps from trigger to panic mode to keep you alive.
Brain 3 – The Neocortex
This is where our creativity lies. Now, most people see the word “creativity” and think art. And yes, this is where we create music, beautiful pictures, invent stories and even look at a hunk of wood and imagine what we might carve it into. But, it is also where we work through mathematical problems, dream up science experiments, design business strategies, and work through complex challenges. Essentially, this is where we imagine possibilities. Where the mammalian brain might sense a threat, the neocortex steps in to say, “Yes, and look at everything that’s possible!” (You can probably guess that we’re into the higher brains now.)The neocortex is called “neo”, meaning “new”, because in evolutionary terms, it is a fairly new addition to the human brain. It’s what has allowed us to evolve beyond a more animalistic state into the incredibly complex creatures we are today.
Brain 4 – The Prefrontal Cortex
So, if the neocortex is highly evolved, the prefrontal cortex is even more so! This brain is responsible for what we call “executive functioning”. Basically, the prefrontal cortex empowers us to control our reflexive or reactionary impulses, allowing us to focus on big picture outcomes and long term goals. This is the brain we tap into when we take the time to assess situations and make decisions that align with what we want to create. It’s what stops us from lashing out in hurt or anger, so that we can communicate with compassion, courage and clarity. It’s what helps us keep a cool head in times of stress, avoiding short-sighted behaviours and knee-jerk reactions. This brain is also sometimes called the “God Brain” and it’s able to stay active during a state of enlightenment, meaning the more you consciously work from this brain, the more dominant it will become, even when you are not intentionally tapping into it.
As you can see, it’s only those two higher brains – the neocortex and prefrontal cortex – that allow us to imagine the future and work towards it. That’s why I like to call them “The Leadership Brain”. Yes, it’s from there that we can most effectively lead others, but most importantly, it’s from our “Leadership Brain” that we lead ourselves in all aspects of our lives – both personal and professional. This is the brain that we work from when we truly become the CEOs of our lives.
How do you tap into your higher brain for stronger leadership?
We’ve all been in situations where we felt overwhelmed, stressed out, angry or afraid and we reacted too quickly, making a choice that didn’t take us down a great path.
When we react this way, we’re allowing our lower brains to take the reins. But, leadership – whether of yourself or others – isn’t about survival. It’s about growth. It’s about holding a vision for yourself or your team and continually taking steps towards bringing that vision to life.
In leadership, we must make the conscious decision to work from our higher brains; our Leadership Brains. And it’s all about what you choose to fuel. Remember, what you feed is what grows. If you consciously and consistently feed into your higher functioning, you’ll start to see it become stronger and stronger, until it is the dominant player in your brain.
5 Ways to Fuel and Work From Your Leadership Brain
Create From Everything
Instead of asking yourself, “How do I fix this?” try asking, “How can I create from this?”
It sounds simple, but by re framing something from a problem (queue the mammalian brain) into an opportunity to create, you tap into that far more complex leadership brain of yours.
The key is to be intentional. Jumping into problem or crisis mode is an ingrained habit for most of us, so we need to be purposeful in changing that habit. Set the intention, for just one week, to approach every situation with the question, “How can I create from this?” When the week is up, reflect back on how your mindset and your impact changed. Then keep going!
If you’re wondering how you can possibly create from a major setback or conflict, I assure you that even in times of crisis, you can choose to create.
Process the Present
What’s happening in the moment can easily trigger your lower brain if you aren’t in the habit of bringing your leadership brain into the present.
Our lower brain is all about reacting – fast! It’s your basic survival setting. Mindfulness practices are all about bringing your higher brain into the present moment so that you can fully process what’s happening and respond with clarity. Here are 5 practices to help you process in the present for stronger leadership.
“No, but…” “We tried that and it didn’t work…” “That’s not how we do things…” “There’s no time/money/space for that…”
We’ve all said these things ourselves or heard them from others. The impact they usually have is to stop the energy flow – the creativity, the collaboration, the open mindedness. It halts them in their tracks.
The “Yes, and” technique is taken from improv. It’s a rule that improv actors must respond to everything with some form of “Yes, and” in order to create from each other, keep the narrative flowing, and uncover possibilities.
The next time an idea comes up from a colleague, family member, roommate, friend, even your own inner voice, respond with “Yes, and” and see where it goes. You may not even know what you’re going to say after, but just let it flow! “No, but” almost always shuts things down. We know this. “Yes, and” keeps you, and everyone around you, in that creative, higher brain mindset where potential lives.
Take it One Step at a Time
Your leadership brain empowers you to visualize the future and to live in the moment. So, hold your vision for yourself and/or your team. Write these visions down, make vision boards, whatever feels right to you. Then bring yourself back to the moment and take it one step at a time.
If you’re like most people, you have a to-do list a mile long. Especially in challenging times, it’s natural for stress and anxiety about the future to seep in. Avoid the temptation to ruminate on that stress, which only feeds your lower brain. Just let the feelings come in, then let them go and ask yourself, “What’s my next best move?”
Take one step towards that big picture. Then another. And another. Create each new step from that third brain of yours. Then create the next. That’s how true change happens.
Feed Your Brain… Literally
As I’m writing this, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are working from home and feeling the effects of anxiety, isolation, drastic change and even grief.
It is so natural to gravitate towards sugary snacks. And guess who loves sugar? Our lower brains! Of course, we need some sugar to fuel our bodies, but there are plenty of nourishing foods to get it from. Too much sugar and our brains can even struggle to connect the different parts! Imagine if that calming, logical thinking prefrontal cortex couldn’t communicate with the survival-focused mammalian brain!
It may seem like an odd leadership tool, but eating in a way that nourishes you will fuel you in a deeply impactful way. Focus on healthy fats like avocados, fish, nuts and so on. Eat whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables and opt for water or herbal tea. Literally feed (or at least eat for) your higher brain.
Make the conscious choice to fuel your higher brain – your leadership brain – so that you can work and lead from that brain. Your brain controls all parts of you and all parts of your brain are valuable and worthy of your love and acceptance. However, the different parts of your brain serve you in different ways, so it’s up to you to choose what parts you tap into and when.
Allow your two lower brains to do what they do in the background. Fuel your two higher brains so that you can act from a higher place, take control of your impact, forgive, create, respond, see beauty and uncover possibilities you never imagined before.
Taking yourself and your leadership to the next level is a highly rewarding and challenging experience. Having professional guidance – someone to help you see your blind spots, hold you accountable, gain clarity, and listen with compassion – can help you reach your highest potential and put you on a path of continual growth. If you need support getting to your next level of leadership, please connect with me.