Toward Better Understanding of Human Behavior

I have long thought about, and emphasized the importance of, understanding how the three sub-systems of our brain (reptilian, limbic and cortex) work together (and sometimes don’t)  in creating our experience of life. Our experience can be made better, optimized even, if we bring sufficient understanding of how our brain works and awareness to our daily activities.

A quick recap: our Reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain and is at the top of the spinal column. It is the rear, and bottom, part of the brain. It controls our autonomic functions, such as: breathing and swallowing. The next is the Limbic System, which is, basically on top of and in front of the reptilian brain; it controls our emotions and memories. The limbic system is newer than the reptilian brain, but not the newest part of the brain. That honor goes to the cortex, or neo-cortex. The Neo-Cortex is the part of the brain that controls executive function — i.e. thinking about thoughts/emotions. We are, as far as we can tell, the only species with a neo-cortex, or at least one as powerful as ours.

The purpose of this post is to discuss the functioning of our brain, its relation to our physio-emotional states and how to better understand the day-to-day of our lives in relation to our brain. As a species, homo sapiens are pretty new, and the difference between us and our recent ancestors is striking, in some ways, and trivial in others.

One the one hand, we are able to create bridges that span many miles, at great heights, put people on the moon, create amazing and powerful art and build affordable, ride-able motorcycles that both accelerate from 0-60 in under 3 seconds and go 186 mph (which is 300 kmh, and the figure that constitutes a “gentlemen’s agreement” that world bike makers have agreed to (to try and stave off European regulation . . . ) — they are ‘limited’ now, and can go faster). [Sorry, I’m a motor-cyclist and might have gone off on a jag there . . . .]

On the other, we are often quick to anger and panic in situations that do not warrant such intense emotional and physical activation. We get cut off in traffic and are enraged. We don’t get a promotion we felt we deserved and become hopeless and despondent.

Put simply, we are amazing creatures full of much potential and genius, yet we are still subject to the fight/flight/freeze response of our cave-man ancestors. They had saber-tooth tigers to worry about, so their bodies developed a system for turning off the neo-cortex and activating their bodies in a way that made them most able to fight or run (or in some cases freeze . . . ).

Does this help you understand road-rage or the occasional seething one experiences in the dreaded staff meeting? It should, because in many situations, our biology betrays us and renders us incapable of thinking clearly and intelligently about the challenge at hand. Our limbic system gets activated by a threat (turns off the part of brain that thinks) and gets us physically ready . . . for an activity we never need engage in.

How can we better understand how we get activated in our day-to-day modern lives? I’m glad you asked, because I recently read an article by David Rock that gives us a great framework for better understanding inappropriate, inopportune — and non-useful — limbic activation: the SCARF Model.

In Issue One (2008) of the NeuroLeadership Journal Rock explains two important points: 1) much of modern human behavior can be explained in terms of people seeking to maximize pleasure/safety and minimize unhappiness/threat; and 2) the biological and neurological systems that regulate these response are in some respects shared. In other words, the parts of the brain and body used for basic threat detection and response and the same that we use to sense and deal with challenges and problems in life.

Leaving aside some of the great points Rock makes in the article, I am going to move to the five pieces of the SCARF Model (no it’s nothing to with keeping your neck warm).

In the modern (1st) world we don’t have to worry about saber-tooth tigers, unexpected crop die-off . . . . We do, however, encounter myriad and frequent experiences that look the same to our limbic system, or emotional brain. Understanding these different “channels” of activation can help us better understand ourselves, and those around us. (Some of them) are:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Rock’s point, and I agree with his thesis, is that whenever we encounter challenges or threats to our stasis level in these areas we perceive threat (away motivation). And, conversely, we will move towards (i.e. behave in certain ways) increased levels in different areas depending on our personalities (approach motivation).

Take a look at the bulleted list above and ask yourself where you get “activated” and move away and what you are attracted to, what you moves towards? For my part, Autonomy and Fairness rise to the top of the list. I don’t care much about Status, don’t worry about Certainty and am somewhat numb to Relatedness (perhaps an indirect Autonomy response). But if I am worried that my independence (Autonomy) might challenged, or that something or someone is unfair (Fairness), I get upset and activated (to differeing degrees, depending on the situation — but activated nonetheless).

How about you? Ask yourself where you don’t get bothered much and where your buttons are easily pushed? Bringing greater awareness to situations where potential activation exists will allow you to better deal with these “threats” when you perceive them.

The other way this model is helpful is in understanding why people react they way they do to (certain) things (and not to others). When you get that your spouse, or child, or co-worker always seems to get upset for “no reason” when certain things happen, look for the pattern or theme. Ask yourself what is being challenged in this person’s mind (that they hold dear)? What are they seeing as a threat to their survival? The answer can often be found in the SCARF Model.

(Conversely, what do they seem to crave, to want more of? Feeding those needs, where possible and healthy, will improve their lives, your relationship and the level of trust between the two of you.)

I am going to play with this model in my own life and share it with my clients where/when appropriate. For my part, I am going to look at the things that activate me and 1) bring better awareness and cognition to the situations where I’m likely to encounter such and 2) look at the SCARF components where I don’t feel threats (typically) and see what I can learn and export.

I encourage you to do the same, and hopefully enjoy better understanding of your emotional life.

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