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Who's in the Video
Robert M. Sapolsky holds degrees from Harvard and Rockefeller Universities and is currently a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University and a Research Associate with the Institute of[…]
In Partnership With
John Templeton Foundation

The brain consists of three layers: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. The reptilian brain controls bodily functions like hormones, body temperature, and hunger. The limbic system handles emotions such as fear, anger, joy, and gratitude. The cerebral cortex is responsible for impulse control, decision making, and long-term planning.

Understanding the functions of each part of the brain allows for more mindful thoughts and better decision-making. For instance, recalling a favorite memory or something that brings happiness can activate the reptilian brain, resulting in a decrease in body temperature and blood pressure. This can reduce stress and promote a more joyful experience throughout the day.

In this video, neurologist Robert Sapolsky explores these concepts in greater depth.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What's the best way to think about the brain? It's insanely complicated. Everything connects to everything; a gazillion little sub-regions. Amid all that complexity, there's a broadly sort of simplifying way to sort of think about aspects of brain function when it comes to behavior.

And this was an idea put forth by this guy, Paul McClean, a grand poobah on the field. Conceptually, of thinking in the brain of the brain is coming in three functional layers- the 'Triune brain.' And again, this is highly schematic- the brain really doesn't come in three layers. But one can think of the first most, the bottom most, the most ancient, is being what's often termed the 'reptilian brain.'

Where basically the parts in there, we've got the same wiring as in a lizard, as in any ancient creature. It's been there forever. Ancient, ancient wiring at the base of the brain, most inside, and what does that region do? All the regulatory stuff. Your body temperature changes, it senses it and causes you to sweat or shiver. It's monitoring your blood glucose levels. It's like releasing hormones that are essential to sort of everyday shopkeeping. It's just, you know, keeping regulatory stuff in balance.

Sitting on top of that is, conceptually, what could be termed the 'limbic system,' the emotional part of the brain. This is very much a mammalian specialty. Lizards are not well known for their emotional lives. Part of the brain having to do with fear, arousal, anxiety, sexual longings, all those sorts of things- Very mammalian. You're off there in the grasslands butting heads with somebody else with antlers and it's your limbic system that's heavily involved in that.

Then sitting on the top is the layer three: 'the cortex.' The cortex, spanking new, most recently evolved part of the brain. Everybody's got a little bit of cortex, but it's not until you get to primates that you got tons, and then apes, and then us. So, functionally, it's very easy to think of the simplistic flow of commands. Layer two, the limbic system, can make layer one, the reptilian brain, activate. When is that? Your heart speeds faster, not because of a regulatory reptilian thing.

"Ooh, you've been cut," something painful, but "Oh, an emotional state." You're a wildebeest and there's some scary, menacing wildebeests threatening you in your territory, and that emotional state causes your limbic system to activate the reptilian brain and your heart beats faster. You have a stress response, not because a regulatory change happened in your body, but for an emotional reason.

Then, it's very easy to think of layered on top, this cortical area, commanding your second layer, your limbic system, to have an emotional response. Rather than something emotional, here's a threatening beast right in front of you. Something emotional- you see a movie that's emotionally upsetting. See a movie, these are not real characters; they're pixels, and it's your cortex that's turning that abstract cognitive state into an emotional response.

Likewise, your cortex, layer three, could influence events down in layer one. You see something upsetting. You think about something, you think about mortality. "One of these days my heart is going to stop beating," and your heart's going to beat faster. You're not bleeding and hypotensive, you're not in some hypoglycemic- nothing in the reptilian brain can make sense of this. A purely cognitive state. "Ooh, on the other side of the planet there are people undergoing some traumatic event and I feel upset about it," and your reptilian brain responds.

So it's very easy, given that, to think of a three talks to two talks to one sort of scenario. Just as readily though, one talks to two talks to three. What would be a case of that? What's your reptilian brain talking to your cortex? Remarkable finding. When we're hungry, we make harsher moral judgments about people's transgressions. We're less charitable, we cheat more in economic games.

Our cortex, assessing the effects of pro-sociality, anti-sociality, and altruism and its evolution. And part of what it's doing in deciding how it feels about somebody else's plight is if your stomach's gurgling, if you're hungry, if you're in pain, that affects very cortical judgment-type areas. Layer one, this ancient reptilian brain that should have nothing to do with how your cortex works, having tons to do with it.

Or layer two influencing layer three, your limbic system, your emotional state, influencing your abstract cognitive processes. What's the most obvious example of it? When we're under stress, when we're in an emotionally aroused state, we make stupid, impulsive decisions that seemed brilliant at the time. Affective, emotional limbic layer two, influencing how your cortical cortex goes about its abstractions. It's not that abstract. It's embedded in the biology of all these layers.

This interaction between these layers seems this very mechanical process, potentially even an unconscious one. How do we consciously have, say, our cortex regulate an emotion, a limbic two layer. Simple. Think about the most arousing, wonderful thing that ever happened to you umpteen decades ago, and your cortex is evoking a memory that's got your limbic system humming along in some excited state.

Or think about, think cortically, or pull out the memories of some traumatic event and your limbic system is responding. How about reptilian level? Easy to make it get into an agitated state. Sit there and think about, think about something incredibly upsetting. Think about some memory that was truly disturbing. Think about mortality, think about global warming- and your heart speeds up.

Layer three, in a very conscious way, has mobilized layer one. Lot harder is the inverse. You're sitting there and you suffer from high blood pressure and either they can marinate you in anti-hypertensive drugs for the rest of your life, or an alternative approach a biofeedback approach is sit there and think about the happiest day of your life. Think about being in an open field that's beautiful. Think about your favorite vacation. Think about, think about, and if it's the right thinking about, suddenly your heart slows down suddenly your blood pressure goes down.

Ah, the core of biofeedback is figuring out what sort of conscious states you can evoke that will affect your reptilian brain in a direction that's good for your health. And all you do then is learn how to get better and better in some stressed, hypertensive circumstance: "What conscious active thinking can I mobilize here at this point that will cause changes in how my big toe's blood flow is working?" In a case like that, that is very conscious regulation of more autonomic, more ancient parts of your brain.