Three Brains!?

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Has Baltimore’s oppressively hot and humid spring got you trapped in your reptile brain, thinking only of survival? Considering heading to an air-conditioned theater to stimulate your mammal brain with films of love, honor, and courage? Maybe feeding your new brain with some yogic meditation before bed? 

“What’s this?” you ask, “Three brains!?” Yes. Well, at least according to this poet and this neuroscientist.

In his essay “Poetry and the Three Brains”, poet Robert Bly seizes on Paul MacLean’s three-brain hypothesis, originally formulated in the 1960s, and discusses the model’s spiritual and literary implications.

The basic idea is this: the human brain as we know it is made up of three separate brain structures, each representing a separate step in evolution. The innermost (and, according to MacLean, evolutionarily oldest) brain Bly calls the “reptile” brain. It is concerned with our physical survival. The second brain structure, the largest of the three, Bly calls the “mammal” brain. It is responsible for courage, love, and feelings of community. The third brain, a thin layer of tissue that covers the mammal brain, Bly calls the “new” brain. By far the most complicated of the three brain structures with millions of neurons per square inch, it is credited with wild leaps of imagination, wisdom, and spiritual enlightenment.

Bly believes our bodies send energy to our three brains in a different proportion at different times. For example, a mountain climber in danger of falling may for a period of time inhabit his reptile brain exclusively, deftly finding the life-saving footholds that carry him to safety. Upon reaching his destination, he finds he cannot remember how he got there.

Similarly, the ancient Norse berserker allows his mammal brain to take over when he enters the trance-like state in which he fights with death-defying fearlessness. (Parents, you may be familiar with this state. It’s the same trance you enter when a referee unjustly calls a foul on your son or daughter and you leap out of your seat to give him a piece of your mind.) The mammal brain briefly took over in Baltimore city upon the election of Barack Obama, with spontaneous celebrations in the street.

According to Bly, energy is transferred to the new brain by denying the concerns of the reptile and mammal brains. He points to ascetics of every spiritual stripe to renounce material wealth, sex, and violence, all of which are major concerns of the other two structures. Reading surrealist poetry and meditating on Zen koans (short spiritual “riddles” that defy rational explanation) may also frustrate the reptile and mammal brains, and—here’s hoping—spark enlightenment.

Today, much of Paul MacLean’s three-brain hypothesis has been overturned in the field of neurobiology—for example, all vertebrates possess a “reptile” brain; at least some nonmammals have a “mammal” brain; and the “new” brain isn’t really all that new. Whatever the neuroanatomical reality, the concept of three separate structures governing human behavior is psychologically compelling and can be a useful way to understand our inner conflicts.

Have you had experiences in which you entered your reptile brain, perhaps when you narrowly avoided a car accident? Did you witness great mammal brain takeover when Do you regularly practice yoga, meditation or something else to tap into your new brain? Let us know. 



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