Ever since I became absorbed by the world of executive functions, I look at people’s behaviors – even the news -through the lens of the brain’s executive functioning. Everything we do boils down to the neuron networks wired into our brain at birth, and then shaped by our life’s experiences. It is also important to realize that the fundamental purpose of the brain is our survival: our own, and that of the “tribe” of people around us whom we feel are tied to our collective survival.
If something happens in our environment that suggests a threat to our survival; a job loss, a terrorist attack, a change in governmental policy, our brain will respond by shutting down connections to our prefrontal cortex, our rational thinking brain. Under a perceived threat, the emotional center of our brain, the limbic system, takes over and we’re on autopilot, responding with three possible behaviors: fight, flight or freeze. We are hardwired to “live another day,” which can be a double-edged sword if you don’t understand the workings of the brain.
Those paragraphs were written with the control of my prefrontal cortex, which most of the time, enables me to keep the lid on my emotional brain so it does not run away with my mind and my life. I am my best self when I can exert what neuroscience would call, “top down control:” my prefrontal cortex overriding my reactive emotional brain.
From my perspective, our most important task is to manage our emotional brain. Decisions made from our emotional brain often do not serve us well, individually or collectively. Fan the embers of anger and fear and the brain starts looking for the cause of the pain, to find “the other” who is the source of our pain, fear, and lack of control. Those embers can so easily burst into the flames of hate – focusing on scapegoats, innocent “others,” seen as the enemy of our peace of mind.
What do I do to maintain “top down control” of my emotions? Here is what has been working for me:
Little by little, we will get our brains back to consistently functioning from the prefrontal cortex. Then we will be able to individually and collectively decide the next steps we need to take to move into the future, to create a world where fewer people fear for their survival and live under the dominance of fight, flight or freeze. Our mission here at EFS, of helping people to understanding our brain and our executive functions, are key foundations for our lives in the 21st century.
May we all honor the seasonal holidays which celebrate light over darkness, love over hate.
Marydee Sklar is the president of Executive Functioning Success and the creator of the Seeing My Time Program®. She is an educator and author of three books on executive functions, as well as a trainer and speaker. Marydee has more than twenty-five years of experience working with students and adults with executive function challenges.