What is the limbic system? The oldest part of the brain, what one of my therapists called ” the lizard brain.”
And in driving us to the comfort of the lizard, it messes up our personal lives.
Here is a picture of it, from an online course on brain anatomy –from San Diego State University. I think. I just know the URL, heck it could be South Dakota State University.
The web site says:
“The Limbic System is the area of the brain that regulates emotion and memory. It directly connects the lower and higher brain functions. It influences emotions, the visceral responses to those emotions, motivation, mood, and sensations of pain and pleasure.”
It is the first part of the brain to evolve. It was with us when we crawled out of the sea. It chased mastodons and hunted and gathered. It still rules sometimes. Right under the modern part of the brain that memorizes poetry and plays piano, \ it is always looking for food, wants to scuttle away from loud noises, pursues the opposite sex to mate, and when faced with danger, makes us want to hide under a rock. That’s limbic comfort.
But modern people don’t have many rocks handy. Hiding behind my computer is as close as I get. At the same time, I know that we were not meant to hide under rocks, so I push myself out of my comfort zone every day. Maybe I have an overdeveloped limbic system, but for me life is a walking contradiction. I do good, but feel like doing the opposite, more often than I admit.
Do this, my cerebrum says, when I go to plant a garden or read the paper, It is what you said you would do. It is the right thing to do.
I don’t wanna!. my limbic system says. My husband is still in bed, and we could be mating instead of reading the stupid paper.
Write that blog post, my cerebrum says. It’s what you are good at. You signed up for NaBloPoMo.
I don’t wanna! my limbic system says. There’s LOLCATSz I haven’t seen. I want to read OTHER people’s posts so I can feel superior.
And my poor husband. He has a cerebrum that has thoroughly beaten his limbic system into shape. But my cerebrum goes to sleep at night, and my limbic system makes me bother him. And if he says no, or just fails to wake up because he’s sleeping, you know what? My limbic system fills me with anger at being rejected, and I go sleep in the other room because I can’t stand to look at him.
But I love him. So while we have very good intellectual conversations a lot of the time, out of nowhere, my limbic system sees a threat, or food, or a rock to hide under, or otherwise gets triggered, and I hate him.
See-saw, back and forth, good impulse, bad impulse. It’s goofy.
Why is it so goofy? Evolution.
Evolution works likes a broke owner of an old house. Instead of starting fresh with a new design, one stopgap change gets aggregated on another,duct tape on a pipe, a second water heater put in without replacing the old one, patch on patch, in small steps, so that each step of evolution looks almost identical to the one before. It’s why we still have our appendixes and gall bladders, and why our eyes work the way they do, which is not very well.
And our personal history messes us up. How many times have you heard your parents coming out of your mouth? How many fights from your young life are you spoiling for?
There are many patterns learned when we are young. Maybe we were told we liked vanilla ice cream better than chocolate (my mom did this to me) so often we still believe it. Maybe we learned not to talk about what goes on at home. Or maybe we were taught to like hot peppers, or garlic, or dislike salt. Or show love by nagging.
THOSE patterns can drive us just as hard. They feel as basic as fear of heights, fear of loud noises, hunger. And they are, mostly, unconscious. But just as we climb trees and mountains, go to rock concerts, and become anorexic (or just stick to a Weight Watchers eating plan or any other diet) we can beat those patterns. If we know what they are.
Knowing mistaken patterns, from instincts, from functional thoughts takes a bit of skill, and a lot of detachment, and distance from rocks to hide under.
Which is uncomfortable.