Neuroscience is affording more attention to brain states, so the question is what are they?
The flow of energy in the brain varies with some areas of the brain dominant based on the varying needs of the organism. The organism, including humans, has one primary goal, which is survival. The secondary goal is procreation, but that is a distant second, as one cannot procreate without surviving the charging hungry lion that is on our tails.
The location of the emotional brain is somewhat controversial (see New York University’s Emotional Brain Institute, directed by Joseph LeDoux) because some of the most emotionally salient areas fall are situated in the neomamallian/neocortical brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the areas that put conscious thought into context, the hippocampus, is situated in the limbic brain. However, thinking of the brain as triune, three interaction brain areas can be quite useful in understanding emotions.
The most primitive brain is the reptilian brain, also referred to as the brain stem, which is very fast in responding, the center of the fight or flight response, and not very accurate or complex. It’s what helps us immediately take action to save our lives, whether that assault is physical, psychological or metabolic, as the brain does not differentiate among the primary sources of stress. When stresses are very hingh, this brain is dominant, we are snappish like a reptile, extreme in emotions, thoughts and behaviors. After all, we are trying to survive!
The next brain to evolve, and less primitive than the reptilian brain is the limbic brain or paleomammalian brain, which is the clearinghouse of stress from the internal world and external environment, and is the seat of attachment, emotions, drives, rewards, and spirituality. When this brain is dominant, we don’t have the benefit of the overseer of the neocortex (the last of the three brains to evolve) being at its best, and we are emotionally more extreme, turning off emotions or amplifying them. This brain area is dominant when the brain perceives stress as moderate.
The last brain to evolve was the neocortex or neomammalian brain, the seat of knowledge, insight, planning and decision-making. This brain area is dominant when the brain perceives stress as low. The brain is balanced and we can focus our attention, think magnificent thoughts, honor our creativity, connect spiritually and in relationships with others, and be at our best in terms of healthy behaviors and adaptive choices.
Energy flows in the brain based on survival needs, as mentioned, so when stresses are very high, the reptilian brain is dominant, an the other two brain areas do not function as effectively. In fact, the brain “splits” such that thoughts, behaviors and emotions are dissonant, as evolution has supported not using neocortical capacities during times of intense stress. We don’t need to talk to the lion and reason with him about letting us off the hook, when it is a matter of seconds before he eats us.
Bruce Perry from Baylor College of Medicine describes brain states in his work with trauma and children yet the basic concept of brain state is axiomatic in physiology. The more stress that is perceived by the brain, the more it switches the dominant state of the brain to primitive areas. They are faster. Less accurate, but they can do the job of saving us as the response is about 15 seconds more rapid that if the neocortex took over and had to process the information into conscious thought.
In EBT we organize the dominance areas of the brain into five states, which is consistent with the general physiologic observation of increasing stress negatively associated with complexity of the brain, and the five brain states referred to by Perry. Our choice to use the five states came primarily from the observation that there are five different processes for switching the brain state from stress to well-being. This will be discussed in another blog entry.
However, a brain state is a response of the organism to allow the areas of the brain that are most effective in favoring survival to be dominant. These brain states have very specific characteristics of emotions, thoughts, behavior and more, and, as mentioned, specific tools that provide the passageway back to well-being, given that specific brain state.
One of the reasons that brain states will be likely to have more attention in the coming decade is that it appears to be the brain state that is the determinant of health indices, rather than the specific symptom. As the brain state moves toward dominance of primitive brain areas, the cascade of stress hormones and imbalancing of neurotransmitters escallates. In a way, it does not matter whether someone is irritable, a little sad, slightly afraid, emotions consistent with a more balanced brain state. All those emotional signs are not very concerning medically. The neocortex or the limbic brain is dominant in those balanced states. On the other hand, when the reptilian brain is dominant, a person is not just irritable but hostile and aggressive, not just sad but depressed, self-pitying, powerless, not just afraid but chronically anxious or panicked. These emotions are often interchangeable. The depressed person is at risk of hostility. The panicked person at risk of depression. They are all symptoms of genetics, environmental influences, and often, most of all, stress. It is easy to become sidetracked and focus on the symptoms of stress, treating them one by one, rather than addressing the root cause, that the person is highly stressed.
With the advances in neuroscience from the last decade, we can begin to recognize brain states, and address the wiring of stress that promotes them. Instead of putting all our energies medically toward procedures, devices and medications that treat the symptoms of stress, we can begin to consider a new paradigm of rewiring the brain for balanced states, so that medications, devices and procedures may be used with less frequency and potentially impact health care delivery.