In my last few decades of being a research psychologist and then a full time psychotherapist, I’ve come to see the modular and quasi-independent functioning of our triune brain as one of the most profound and under-appreciated factors shaping our human culture and creating many of our modern day challenges. More specifically, I would go so far as to say that once the implications of the triune brain are fully understood and integrated into our academic and folk cultures, it will create a total reconceptualization and treatment approach to mental health challenges, relationship challenges, and a deeper understanding of childhood and adult development.
Most people are very aware that we have two hemispheres in the brain, and that the right and left hemispheres are specialized in processing different types of tasks; the right being more holistic and non-linear, while the left is said to be the seat of logical, rational, and linear reasoning processes. What fewer people know is that the brain is also divided into three modules reflecting the major developmental stages in our evolution. These are the physical, emotional, and intellectual modules. Of course the modules are highly interconnected and act as “the brain “, but each module can also function quite independently of the others, and this is where is gets interesting.
Examples of How the Triune Brain Shows Up in Our Culture and History:
In high school we type people into “dumb jocks ” (physical brain dominant), “Artsies” (emotional brain dominant), and “Nerds ” or “Brains ” or “Brainiacs ” (intellectually dominant).
As a culture we talk about “follow your heart ” (emotional brain), “Listen to your gut ” (Physical brain), and “listen to reason ” (intellect).
The Mahayana Buddhists speak of the Trikaya or the three bodies of a being: The Dharmakaya or Truth body refers to the direct experience and knowing of ultimate reality. While not pointing directly to the rational and logical processes of the intellectual brain, it does place those processes in a context, that the intellect and its quest for “truth” must submit to the ultimate, experiential Truth of the Dharmakaya; The Sambhogakaya or body of mutual enjoyment corresponds nicely to the emotional brain and it’s relational feelings and emotional states; and the Nirmanakaya or created body manifests in time and space, is controlled and enlivened by the physical brain.
The Vajrayana Buddhist’s speak of the three vajras of Body, Speech, and Mind, which map on nicely to the physical, emotional, and intellectual brains, where speech, particularly in the context of singing and expression of strong feelings or passion, channels the activity of the emotional system.
Shaucha is a Sanskrit term referring to purity of, you guessed it, Body, Speech, and Mind.
The western mysteries and religion traditions speak to the notion of righteous thought (mind/ intellect), word (speech/ emotional), and deed (body/ physical).
G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way teachings, one of the first Westernized versions of Eastern and Sufi mysticism, base most of their teachings (though they get fairly esoteric) on the idea of three “centres” – the intellectual, emotional, and moving centres – and clearly speak to the three brains as I describe them.
And finally, in the 1960’s psychiatrist and neuroscientist Paul MacLean proposed the Triune brain theory. Being a neuropsychiatrist he did eventually write and publish a very technical summary tome in 1990 entitled The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions and of course called the lobes by the very technical terms: the R-complex (or reptilian brain), the Paleomammalian (or Limbic), and the Neomammalian (or Primate) brains.
The term “perennial philosophy “, popularized by Aldous Huxley, posits all world cultures and peoples keep re-discovering the same universal truth regarding the ultimate (divine) nature of the universe. I would propose that there is also a “perennial triunism ” in which cultures and people the world over keep re-discovering the same universal truth with regards to the three essential ways humans can be in the world, three ways of parsing and knowing the world, in related but independent ways, and which show up in most folk cultures, historical and religious cultures, and in Western and Eastern cultures. All of these frameworks and philosophies reflect the functions of knowing and being in the world through the three primary lobes of the human brain; the intellectual brain, the emotional brain, and the physical brain.
||Nerds and Geeks
And the relevance of all this? I will be writing many blogs on that topic. Here are some examples.
The Triune Brain in Psychological Processes:
- Intrapersonal conflict: Many of the situations in which people experience an internal conflict and inability to make an important decision can been seen more clearly and resolved more readily when you identify that two or more of the triune brain modules are processing different sources of information according to different values and principles.
- Interpersonal conflict: I see this often and a common example is relationship conflict. One individual may be very rational and intellectual in their approach to life, the other more heart centred or emotional. Not only are they applying different values to the same situation and reaching different conclusions regarding what’s important, they will also have a very difficult time communicating with each other, literally thinking and often speaking different languages.
- Repression: I wrote a whole paper about this as an undergraduate student in Psychology in the early 1980. I still have a copy and may make it available on my website when I write a summary blog about it. The basic gist is that activation of our muscles can, under the right environmental contingencies, become reinforced to stay tense because that tension interferes with the processing of the emotional and intellectual brains. This is a good example of how the members of the triune brain, while somewhat autonomous, are still quite interconnected.
- Developmental Psychology: I wrote and presented a paper for the 2010 Integral Theory Conference outlining a first draft of my EBIQ Integral theory, which posits an underlying three dimensional structure to Ken Wilber’s AQAL version of Integral theory. This aspect of EBIQ Integral theory is based on the idea that our sense of self changes as we grow through a predictable sequence of being “identified” with and learning about the activity of each of the modules of the triune brain. There is an individual and communal version of of the self which is based on the physical brain, the emotional brain, and intellectual brain. Its a very powerful framework and is very useful clinically, as you might imagine.
The Triune Brain in Meditation
- Mind Chatter: One of the most challenging aspects of learning to meditate is learning to not identify with and feed the random mind chatter that inhabits most individual’s minds. My introspective take on this and some informal research suggests the mind chatter of the intellect is being fed by the emotional brain, and that leads to a very different approach to eliminating it!
- Shamatha: I really like Upasaka Culadasa’s paper summarizing the ten stages of shamatha or deep absorption in meditation. When teaching this as part of a meditation class my wife and I ran in 2014 I was wonderfully surprised to see how well the stages mapped onto the sequential shifting dominance of the modules of the triune brain.
- Mindfulness: One of my more profound reconceptualizations of mindfulness was realizing two things about it. One being that there are actually two “witnesses” and most teachers and researchers don’t make that distinction when talking about it. The other is that our greatest spiritual aspiration for being mindful isn’t about moving more deeply into spirit, but actually just the opposite. This will be a fun blog!
I am just beginning this blogging process and welcome direction and feedback in the comments section below. For example, which of the topics listed above would you be interested in hearing about first? Or suggest topics that you be be interested it. Thanks and I look forward to our developing relationship.