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Emotional Brain Vs. Logical Brain

April 30, 2014

We have two brains — one that can get us into trouble, and one that can get us out.

There’s the emotional brain (called the amygdala), tucked deep and low within the mass of complex circuitry inside our heads. Sometimes referred to as the lizard brain because it’s what we have in common with creatures going back millions of years, the emotional brain reacts quickly and instinctively, alert to every threat; animal survival depended on it. In humans (both prehistoric and contemporary), it triggers a quick fight or flight response: we put up our dukes and come out swinging, or we run for cover and race quickly away (or shut down and go silent).

And then there’s the logical brain (the prefrontal cortex), sitting just behind the forehead, a relative newcomer in the brain’s evolution, coming onto the scene millions of years after the emotional brain had established its powerful seniority. It’s the logical brain that allows us to reason and plan and organize our thoughts — and to gain control over the emotional brain.

But controlling the emotional brain isn’t easy. With eons of practice since alerting cavemen and cavewomen to every danger, the emotional brain sounds an alarm for even the slightest provocation, the smallest threat. A partner’s angry tone or sharply raised eyebrow and the emotional brain signals “danger”: the heart races, the breath quickens, blood rushes to places it wasn’t rushing to before. Emotion floods through us and if it overwhelms the logical brain, we yell, we swear, we hit below the belt, or we exit with a slam of the door. The emotional brain is now driving the car.

At times like that, what’s needed is bringing the logical brain back behind the wheel and the emotional brain into the back seat. Some people do this through slow deep breathing, which regains control of the heart and lungs and slows the flow of adrenaline coursing through the body. That alone helps the logical brain nudge the emotional brain into the back seat. But sometimes what’s needed is a time-out — twenty or thirty minutes or more — while the body calms itself and emotions cool down. Only then should conversation resume. Only then are we capable of speaking sensibly, of listening effectively and responding in a mature way.

So give yourself permission to say to your partner: “I can’t continue, I need a time-out. Let’s continue after I calm down and can think with my logical brain.” (And if you’re the partner who requests a time-out, it’s your responsibility to request a time-in so that the conversation can resume. Time-out must never be a ploy to skip out.)