Understanding The Brain & Mind – A Five-Layer Model

How we use our brain and mind is fundamental to our experience of  life.

Both our day-to-day experience and our overall level of achievement and fulfillment are directly tied to how we think and feel.

And how we use our brain and mind is how we think and feel.

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I’ve studied the brain and mind (why I keep distinguishing between the two is important and useful, and will be explained below) for some time. I deeply believe that the level of our understanding of how our thoughts and emotions are created, through how our neuro-biology processes stimuli – and what we do with that understanding– is our experience of life.

But it’s complicated.

And it’s simple.

First the simple: Thoughts create Emotions, Emotions create your Actions, and Actions are your life.

But how? Exactly . . . ?

That’s where the complicated comes in.

Our basic neuro-biology is optimized for 1) fast processing of stimuli, 2) stimuli filtering and 3) survival.

On top of that, humans added a part to our brain that allows us to think about our thoughts and ponder and ruminate and wonder and  . . . .

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Our current model of the brain is of three parts: the brain stem (the oldest part of our brain, usually referred to as the Reptilian Brain), the limbic system (otherwise known as the Emotional Brain) and the newest region: the Cortex (or Prefrontal Cortex).

As physical descriptions go, it’s apt. It even differentiates the different functions of the brain (generally).

But it doesn’t really talk about the mind or relevant functions.

That’s where my Five-Layer Model comes in.

Understanding the different layers will help us to use our brain and mind better, and live better.

In future posts I will go into more detail about each layer, optimization and overall integration.

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1) The Brain

Meaning, the actual tissue, chemicals/proteins/hormones and electrical activity of the organ in our heads.

The brain processes stimuli, stores memories and creates thoughts.

Key ways to optimize functioning are proper rest and nutrition and regular periods of (intentional) mindfulness (i.e. meditation).

2) Instinctual Reactions

As I said above, we are, physically, optimized for survival. Not too long ago (evolutionarily speaking), life was harsh and exacting and dangerous. The humans that were vigilant and processed threat stimuli quickly and accurately lived. Those that didn’t, didn’t.

Our five senses are continually monitored by our limbic system and, unconsciously (i.e. very, very quickly) processed. Any stimulus that seems to be a threat triggers our sympathetic nervous system and engages our fight/flight/freeze reaction.

3) Habitual Patterns

Our brain is optimized, through evolution, for efficiency and speed.

Unfortunately this comes at the expense of accuracy and distinction.

Beyond basic processing of stimuli, our limbic system is a pattern-matcher. It monitors our environment and prefers speed over examination. It quickly matches stimuli to similar-seeming things in its memory– i.e., our subconscious.

Much of what we do is living out habits. Habits are efficient. They allow for life functions to continue, while allowing for the constant, un-ceasing, never-ending, always-happening (did make my point there?) monitoring of our environment for threats.

The trouble is, our memories, our patterns, can be flawed.

If you wonder why you react “the same durn way” to things, it because for given stimuli, or events, you have memories of having dealt with that– and here’s the kicker!– in a way that didn’t kill you.

I say “here’s the kicker” because the part of your brain that favors efficiency and speed doesn’t do well with understanding what’s resourceful in a modern world.

We have neuro-biological systems that are still optimized for survival in a physically dangerous, and often cold, and often bereft, world.

That’s how something that doesn’t kill you is seen as functional and ideal.

What to do?

How to optimize?

First, develop a habit of curiosity with your behavior and life. Start to wonder how you could be creating non-ideal moods and patterns and habits.

Second, find ways to quiet your mind (not silence it . . . ) and develop greater awareness of your moment-by-moment consciousness (i.e. meditation).

Finally, develop small, tiny, ever-so-slight* changes that you can make, that you practice regularly, so you can interrupt your habitual patterns and install new, resourceful responses.

4) Thought

This layer is interesting. and it’s the first one that is basically “logical” and not mostly or purely physical.

Our thoughts are the emotional and intellectual content of our minds.

I don’t know how to differentiate between emotion and thoughts at this level other than to say that they’re separate and inextricably linked.

Also, “thought” is what we’re actually aware of – the difference between our conscious mind (a low percentage of overall processing) and our sub-conscious (most of our brain/mind complex).

Thoughts are the things you “know” or can “think about,” consciously.

You use thoughts to plan and set goals and have conversations and choose** and reason.

5) The Observer

This is the cool one. The one only humans have (as far as we know . . . ). The one that is very powerful.

The Observer is our ability to notice and see our thoughts.

The ability to view our emotional and cognitive life from “above.”

From a vantage point that allows us to understand the functioning and processing and outputs of our entire neuro-biology– to notice and appreciate everything from physical sensations; to our reactions when stressed; our patterns and habits that keep happening, to the way we make sense of our lives with our thoughts and (this is a BIG one for humans:) how we make meaning.

Imagine The Observer is wise, patient, loving friend who is always there for you, ready to help you make sense of things and help you to understand and improve and optimize– if you will only acknowledge its existence and choose to engage.

Again, as with all things brain/mind, the way to optimize is to become mindful, and increase your ability to be present in any given moment (which, again, means some form of meditation).

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I hope the preceding has been useful.

I hope it has given you some insight into how our neuro-biology works, and what you can do to be in harmony with what is.

There are two main sources of suffering in the world: 1) Ignorance (not knowing knowable things and/or how they work) and 2) Resistance (refusing to think/feel/act in accordance with how things work/are and thus creating friction, strife, chaos, wasted time/effort,  . . . ).

You now have some basic knowledge on how your neuro-biology works. It’s up to you take intelligent – and authentic – action.


* Your changes must be small and gentle so as to not activate your survival instinct. Remember, your limbic system views “didn’t-kill-me” as functional and preferable over anything unknown.

** With a huge assist from your memories and emotions.

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