Setting goals with our 3 brain systems

“Je pense, donc je suis”

“I think, therefore I am”

When French philosopher Rene Descartes first made this observation in the 1600s he was referring to this: he could not doubt that he himself existed, as he was the one doing the doubting in the first place! It was a revolutionary thought at the time – a first step in demonstrating the attainability of certain knowledge.  I find it curious that he used the word “doubt”.  I mean, if set a personal goal of who I want to become – I just gotta think it up, right?!

So here we are at the beginning of 2021 , and some of us have set our new year resolutions. It’s a fresh new start from the crazy mixed bag year of  2020. We are fed up with the wierd and wacky goin on in the world and just want to get our lives back on track. Its the perfect time to reflect on and strategize the goals we want to work on in. However, more than 80% of us will give up only after 6 weeks! Why is that?

To sum it simply, our evolutionary brains are behind the times. They think they have to keep us “safe” by preventing change from happening. Unfortunately this can keep us enslaved to some nasty habits. Our brains have yet to evolve to the point where they can instantly support the changes we want to make and maintain.

In addition to that – have you noticed during this time of covid, a sense of being lost inside? As if the world was once a trusted foundation, but now feels wobbly and not so trustworthy. Where does that leave us? It can leave many unanswered questions inside our being, just floating about and wreaking havoc on our energy, sleep, mood and eating patterns.

We have 3 major brain systems; each one having a completely different function. When we find a way to align these to work together, we can find it easier to achieve our goals and become that person we dream of.   Let’s take a few minutes to observe these parts of our brain, how they operate, and what they need to help us achieve our new year resolutions.

The oldest most primitive part of the brain is called the reticular brain. Evolving over the past 100 million years, is responsible for our body’s immediate survival. When it senses we are in danger it summons up the fight, flight or freeze response.  This may be helpful if you’re running away from a dinosaur.  But what happens when a threat is imagined? Our brains cannot tell if an event is real or just a thought! 

Think back to a time when you watched a scary movie. Did you feel as though you were on the edge of your seat, your heart racing and breathing shallow?  Although you were just sitting on your couch eating popcorn your reticular brain thought the threat was real and responded accordingly. It increased your heart rate, cut off digestion, prepared your body to leap off the couch and run to safety. When it comes to making new years resolutions this part of the brain must be assured of our physical safety as we work on forming healthier habits.

The second oldest brain system is the emotional, limbic brain. At 50 million years of evolution it’s primary concerns are emotional awareness, status quo and survival of our group, family, tribe.  It brings past learning into the present moment and is closely interlinked with the older reticular brain system.  

The emotional brain resists change and strives to stay in its comfort zone. Not exactly intuitive when it comes to adopting new habits!  It makes lightening quick decisions and therefore thinks in simple terms of right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no, black or white. 

Can you recall a time when you went on a diet, only to sabotage your efforts by eating an entire bar of chocolate? Your emotional brain was trying to keep you “safe” according to its definition of the word. It does not like change! It thinks, “Why, our friends and family might disown us if we changed and became a different person. Then how would we survive?!” In setting goals we might feel afraid of the unknown or fear a change in our lifestyle. By reassuring this brain system that our group and surroundings are safe with said changes, we can begin to explore ways of doing things differently.

The third cerebral brain is the youngest part at 2.5 million years of evolution. It is the most flexible part of our brain with the ability to do the imagining for us. It works best when it is relaxed, alert and dissociated, creating future based visions and potential outcomes.  This is where the magic happens!

Take a moment to look up and out…..picture yourself in the near future, as if you have already achieved your  new years resolution.  What is it that you accomplish? How do you feel in achieving that? If you could have a conversation with the future you, what advice would you hear them giving you to help you get there?

Whatever scene is playing out inside your head – your cerebral cortex is making that up for you!  In order for us to follow through to this vision and achieve our goals, the cerebral brain must sense that the reticular and emotional brains are safe to comply with that vision! Together as the 3 brains view our projected future from the stance of I see, I feel, and I hear, they align to co create a new healthier version of you. From this vision we can create strategic plans to complete our goals in easy bite sized steps.

Thinking back to Descartes and that day when he coined the term “I think, therefore I am”.  His 3 brain systems – the reticular, emotional, and cerebral were perfectly aligned as he pondered and discovered the most revolutionary thought of his time.

I think, therefore I am?? For transformation to start happening …. And ensure we succeed at new years resolutions …. I would first start with this thought:  I think, therefore I can.

-Paula Smith

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