Considering all of the things that a brain is capable of, how complex our minds are, it’s hard to believe that when all is said and done, when everything else has been stripped away, the brain only has one job, and that is to survive.
With all of our fanciful thinking, complex problem-solving, and monumentally creative and intricate tasks, and yet the one thing the brain really strives for, all day, every day, for as long as we are alive, is to survive. That’s it. The brain’s job is to get us from one minute to the next.
Keeping us alive is all it needs to do. Getting us through this moment to the next moment. It doesn’t even consider much more than several moments from now, just this one, and maybe the next few, and that’s it.
Thanks to human evolution and the development of our prefrontal cortex, the mind has become bombarded with hundreds and thousands of thoughts, from memories that pop up when we smell something familiar or hear a song from when we were young, to keeping appointments and tasks to be done, to being able to adjust and accommodate as new stuff pops up in our day.
The “extras” of our brains have evolved from the most basic of needs and behaviours like breathing, eating and procreating, to a seemingly infinite number of tasks and possibilities that make the world more industrial, more technological, more complex. And changing, even more, every minute.
Starting with our prefrontal cortex. It is the most recently evolved part of our brain and is responsible for managing tasks, problem-solving, and “executive” thinking. This is also the last part of our brain to come online as we grow up. It develops from all that we learn, or don’t learn, as we grow up.
Then we have our limbic system, otherwise known as the “emotional” brain. It sits behind the prefrontal cortex. The two main parts of the limbic system are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala’s job is to mostly manage memories as they relate to our emotions. And not trivial ones like how to tie your shoes, but the hardcore memories like when you were bullied in school. It stores, with the help of the hippocampus, what happens to us and how it has shaped how we view the world and ourselves.
The amygdala is where trauma gets stuck, so when your brain continues to respond with fear or anger to a seemingly “irrelevant” situation with an exaggerated response like fight-flight-freeze or collapse, it’s because the amygdala has taken the last or most effective memory it has and has applied the knowledge to the current situation. Even if technically it’s not the same, it could be a minor thing from the past, say a smell or a word, a gesture or a posture, that occurred in the past traumatic memory, and that’s all the brain will recognize and it will take off assuming that this new situation is going to be the same as that past traumatic memory.
It’s kind of narrow-minded (no pun intended) in the way it zeros in on a piece of the memory that was stuck and assumes that it’s happening again. Of course, the amygdala doesn’t know that the same situation is not happening and we don’t need to respond the way we did before.
That’s where the prefrontal cortex would come in, to set us straight and let us know this isn’t the same situation. The PFC would be able to “think” things through and let us know that this “new” experience is not the same as our old experience and that we can get through this. That we can handle this. That we don’t have to revert to our patterned coping methods.
Unfortunately, once the amygdala has triggered our fight-flight-freeze-collapse response, and our autonomic system has taken over, our helpful prefrontal cortex actually comes offline. It literally shuts down. And our amygdala takes the wheel.
This is actually a good thing because it’s the prefrontal cortex that slows us down when we are in a grave or threatening situation. We actually want the amygdala and our autonomic system to take control and get us through the moment.
Where this becomes a problem is when the amygdala doesn’t realize that there actually is no current grave or threatening situation going on, and we want it to stand down for now. But until we can calm our autonomic system, and take the wheel back from the amygdala, we will remain activated in fight-flight-freeze-collapse.
The brain stem, at the base of our brain, is the most primitive part of our brain and is the first to come online, even inter utero. It is responsible for the very basics of what keeps us living; from our heartbeat to our breathing, and our digestive system. It is the brain stem that takes control when we are in a threatening situation, whether real or perceived. Shutting down what systems we don’t need to survive this moment, and ramping up all the ones we do need, like a faster heartbeat and pulse to be able to get us moving, heightening the receptors in our ears to be able to hear the incoming threat. Pumping blood and adrenaline to our muscles for action.
It’s really quite a remarkable system that has been finely tuned for millennia. And whether we like it or not, it is there to save our lives. Every day, all day, without exception.
I personally find it awesome how fast-acting and intuitive the autonomic system is, and without any help from me. I admit that having had it activated and in the varying states of fight-flight-freeze-collapse for decades is not at all fun or awesome. When it’s causing me to have anxiety that leaves me tense and agitated on a consistent basis for weeks and months on end, it’s not awesome at all. It’s tiring as hell.
And if someone had told me, even just a few years ago, that my brain was just trying to survive, even with all the anxiety, I would not have believed them or cared. Ironically, I would have been just trying to survive and get through the day myself. Not realizing that my brain was actually helping me more than I thought, and had been helping me all along.
It’s really quite amazing what the brain can do to ensure that we make it past this moment. Because no matter what we may try, whether it leads to addiction or compulsion, disorders or conditions, the brain is already doing everything it can to get us through. The brain is already on the task even before we realize it.
Having to survive by addiction, compulsion, disorders, and conditions, is not the best way to help the brain along, nor is it good for us long term, but because it got us through the moment, then the brain sees this as a means to an end. We needed to survive and x-y-z got us through, so as far as the brain is concerned, we now have a surviving mechanism. And if need be, we will recall it again if it will keep us alive.
This, of course, leads to the downward spiral, crippling addictions, destructive coping methods, and devastating consequences that can lead to death but remember, our brain isn’t really thinking that far ahead. It’s thinking of this moment, this experience, this right-in-our-face situation, and how to not die from it.
I know it’s not easy to give credit to the brain for how it has gotten us to survive. I know it’s not easy to see that our habits and the way we cope, that our brains are not actually out to “get” us the way we often think it is. I know that it’s not easy to see that the brain is trying to protect us. That it’s actually just trying its best to keep us alive. It can be easy to feel as if we are at war with our brains because they keep bringing us down the same destructive paths, aiming for our survival like all the other times it worked, and we’re paying the consequences for all those choices.
If I could talk to my brain I would suggest maybe finding less destructive and devastating methods for future generations to work on for surviving. And maybe thinking a little long term from time to time.
But for now, for all of us, for better or for worse, our brains are not trying to kill us. They really aren’t. Because they only have one job, and whether we agree with their tactics or not, they keep us alive. The get us through, even if we’re broken and tired and in pain from what it took to get us through, BUT, they got us through. So as far as the brain is concerned, their job, their monumental, will-do-whatever-it-takes-to-save-you-no-matter-how-that-pans-out task to keep us alive for at least one more moment.
Don’t be too hard on your brain. It only knows this one job.