The old brain: Survival psychology, and how we might balance it

The old brain: ancient psychology, and how we might balance it

I met with a good friend of mine this morning and we got to talking about the old brain. He’s maybe 25 years older than me, and I’ve known him for 30 years, but it’s only in the last four or five that we’ve built, from somewhere unknown, that mysterious thing called friendship. We meet up sporadically, and exchange the occasional email or piece of writing to review, and buy each other a coffee occasionally.

We talked this morning about the psychology of the old brain. The old brain patterns that predate the Internet, the invention of flight, all industrial revolutions, Christianity and the ancient civilisations.

My friend spoke about the mysterious occurrence that happens to us all every now and then, when we go upstairs or to the kitchen or the garage in search of something, and when we get there we’ve forgotten entirely what we were searching for.

—It’s to do with your old brain, he said to me.

—Go on, I said.

—Well, the old brain, it still sort of thinks we’re living in a jungle with dangers everywhere. Say we stepped out from the bushes and into a clearing. We’re immediately on the lookout for dangers. “Rabbit over there, don’t need to worry about him.”

—So the brain deliberately forgets where you’ve just been, he went on. It doesn’t need it anymore. It focuses all its energy on what’s in front of us and around us. Because it knows that it has to be negative by default. Get complacent and make a mistake and be startled by a rabbit, you get away with it. But do the same and it’s a tiger, you’re a goner. So we’re designed to look for dangers. We expect them. And that’s why sometimes we go upstairs and forget why.

So don’t worry. You’re not losing your mind. It’s just your 100,000-year-old brain function doing what it was designed to do. It might not help find your keys quicker, but it’ll keep you safe.

Old brain, gut instinct and finding a balance

The trick with that, then, is to try to know the difference between when those 100,000-year-old functions are telling you something that will keep you alive, and when they’re seeking dangers that aren’t really there in the 21st century world.

It’s not an easy trick to pull off.

It takes, I suspect, listening to the wisdom of the inner self, channeling the gut instinct that rarely lets us down when we pay close attention to it.

And it takes challenging that gut instinct with some sense of rational thought, some framework to help you impose the power of logic onto that inner wisdom.

Most of us are flung to either end of the spectrum, either relying solely on logic because we dismiss the touchy-feely woo-woo world of the gut, or relying solely on the inner feelings at the expense of the tried, the tested, the proven and the evidence-based.

Forging these two elements — the instinctive deep wisdom of the gut, and the compelling momentum of logic — can, I think, create within us a superpower.

Whenever I find myself too far away from this middle-ground, led too much by my head or too much by my gut, I can make silly mistakes.

The middle ground? It might just be the heart. Heart-centred decision-making, that fuses and balances gut instinct with brain logic.

As of today, February 10th, 2020, I have no real idea how I can reliably reach this point every time I need to, or what exactly to do the steps are to achieve it.

But my heart tells me that the how and the what will follow the why.

And the why is clear: because all logic or all gut can lead me astray.

(For more on gut instinct, as well as the Ayurvedic way of life, learning to love rain and the art of doing nothing, listen to the Life Well Lived Podcast interview with Bibi Baskin)