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Thinking Coping Brain

Thinking Coping Brain


Introduction

As we have seen, two of our three human coping brain elements (reptilian and emotional) are mostly instinctive and use coping capabilities we have at birth. By contrast, our thinking (neocortex) human coping brain has the ability to learn and use language. These functions require the linking of learning brain cells we call neurons. These microscopic, multi-functional neurons are building blocks not only for thinking and learning, but for deciding the way we behave. Thinking brain makes possible our organizing and planning abilities. It also enables us to figure out the meaning of our emotional experiences, such as why we are upset or hurt. The meanings of emotional experiences are what we call our “feelings.”

Not only is neocortex by far our largest coping brain, it is the center for learning and using self-management skills. It enables us to judge and plan what type of coping response we use when we are upset, stressed and hurting inside. Neocortex uses words to name our experiences so we can gain control over the non-verbal instinctive coping brain elements. To learn as well as use healthy coping skills we must first understand how to use our thinking brain’s ability for problem-solving.

The following are major coping issues that involve our thinking brain functions

The battle between our three coping brains when we’re upset, angry or sad

Scientists have yet been unable to see how our three coping brain elements actually struggle with each other and decide how we respond to or cope with challenging experiences and changes in life. To help you understand and see this complex process in action go to the home page feature "Captain Neo and our Brain Team." These imaginary Brain Team characters represent how our three brain functions interact communicate with each other and possibly conflict fight or argue with each other.

The neocortex, our uniquely human thinking brain

Our human brain neocortex is responsible for coordinating all coping brain responses when we are faced with a stressful situation. This thinking brain is equipped with a variety of tools and abilities unlike any other brain in the animal kingdom. This is the only brain function that has the ability to name and group things and experiences by using words. Words are powerful brain short cut symbols that are also used to direct our coping response to stress and upsets. Using learning and language, neocortex is the conductor and director of our coping brain orchestra. It has the capability of taking the lead and sorting through and selecting from the two other instinctive coping brain impulses under its control. To understand this task, read on to find out about the many tools and abilities this captain of our coping brain team is able to use.

7 Major Characteristics of Our Amazing Human Thinking and Coping Brain

1. Our questioning, “figuring out,” problem-solving brain
2. Ability to reason, judge and choose among different options
3. Ability to learn from and gain knowledge from our experiences
4. The pre-teen neocortex can regulate instinctive brain functions and develop new coping strategies
5. Ability to understand and use words and abstract symbols
6. Ability to create, plan and imagine things that do not exist
7. Ability to adapt to change and develop new coping skills, beliefs and behavior
1. Our questioning, “figuring out,” problem-solving brain

Unlike reptilian and emotional coping brains, which operate primarily by the instinctive and primitive need to survive, the neocortex -- newest and largest of our coping brains -- reacts after a process of “thinking through” a problem and reviewing possible solutions. When we are upset by a new and challenging situation, all three brain functions are “excited” to become involved. Yet only neocortex has the ability to consider all the input it receives from other brain functions to plan a coping response to stress and decide upon the best way to deal with it. Neocortex is also the only coping brain with insight to ask questions of its self! This part of our coping brain leads us to ask “why” we feel the way we do when we are upset, stressed, or experiencing a threat. Neocortex uses vast neural networks to store coping short cuts so we can respond more quickly the next time we are faced with a similar problem. Neural networks transmit messages at one-thousandth of a second. This is how we learn to solve new problems by comparing a new challenge to a similar challenging event. Neurons are able to arrange and rapidly change their connections, which makes them flexible and capable of adding knowledge by learning new things. Trillions of brain cells can be involved in solving an important problem by instantly searching memory to compare new experiences with ones we've have had in the past. When faced with challenging situations, the neocortex is able to imagine new solutions by combining the "knowledge" of a number of neural networks. This is called a "creative coping response." The more experience our thinking brain has in memory from solving other hard problems the more choices we have for successfully coping and dealing with new threats or challenges.

2. Our ability to reason, judge and choose among different options

Neocortex may also be called the "judge" within our brain. It listens to input from its own memory bank, plus trying to understanding impulses from the two instinctive (emotional and reptilian) coping brains before making a judgment. Then it decides what type of coping response we should make to recover from a stressful or upsetting event. This reasoning process often takes much longer than automatic reactions of reptilian and emotional coping brains. When we need to cope with an injury or other dangerous situation, reptilian impulses are often the first to respond. Because our survival may be at stake, reptilian impulses quickly prepare our brain and body to take immediate actions such as attack or hide. This response is then followed by emotional brain activity and its ability to sense problems between us and others. Emotional brain may respond to painful stress by automatically triggering crying. You may notice that only after you have escaped from a dangerous threat of injury or dying do we usually begin to cry. Following emergency coping responses led by reptilian and our emotional brain responses, it takes more time for neocortex to consider its options and figure out what is the best way we should do to deal with our stress or pain. If neocortex allows the other instinctive brains to take control, we often refer to our behavior as "being out of control." Due to hormones sensitizing emotional and reptilian brain, adolescents and particularly teenagers often over react to upsets that take command over the thinking brain's judgment.

3. Ability to learn from and gain knowledge from our experiences

The ability to learn and store large amounts of experiences in our neocortex memory bank is a great advantage human brains have over all reptiles and most other mammals. We humans are the most intelligent being on earth because we are capable of continuously learning from our experiences to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. But neocortex learning and memory functions can be impaired by stress that we have not yet learned to get over using healthy coping skills. Neuroscience research includes examining the effects of stress on the brain. These studies, using laboratory animals and human brain imaging, show that stress hormones released in our blood stream alter our brain and coping functions when we remain upset, angry or sad for long periods. In fact, over time stress hormones can actually affect important brain functions including our memory, attention ability and learning. Fortunately, humans have the unique ability to use thinking brain coping tools to help us get over upsets and hurt feelings more easily and reduce our level of distress. Parents and educators can learn more about “Coping and Stress; Memory and Learning” by going to the "For Parents & Educators" home page menu.

4. The pre-teen neocortex can regulate many instinctive brain functions and develop new coping strategies

We don’t expect young children to always learn from their mistakes. Nor do we expect small children to have a great amount of self-control. But pre-teens, teenagers and adults can learn to put thinking brain in charge of coping strategies. The younger child’s brain is not yet ready to take this step by understanding their own brain functions. Younger children are easily frustrated, angry, and more likely to fight or throw tantrums if they don’t get their way. Both their reptilian and emotional coping brain instincts often over-rule neocortex rational way of coping. When young children are upset they cry more than pre-teens since neocortex has not learned to control emotional and reptilian brain impulses. Young children often respond to hurtful experiences by making themselves even more upset and stressed. Instinctive brain impulses will be a dominant coping force until the pre-teen thinking brain matures as they near adult brain ability around age 11 or 12. Pre-teens are capable of learning how to manage many emotional upsets when things don’t go their way. Young children's brains are simply too immature to learn and use thinking brain coping skills. On the other hand, young children are more easily excited and emotionally expressive than pre-teens. They more openly show their joy and excitement. Younger kids scream with delight more often since they haven’t yet learned to put brakes on these real, but considered "childish" emotional brain responses. Children become pre-teens and enter adolescence. At this unsettling time our brains, behavior and bodies are between childhood and becoming an adult. Neocortex begins to take on a stronger role of exercising self-discipline using neocortex coping abilities. This is why the Brain Works classroom education project is introduced to 4th, 5th and 6th graders.

5. Ability to understand and use words and abstract symbols


The ability to understand and use words to describe our experiences is the most powerful of our thinking brain tools. Think how many times a day we use words to communicate with others to explain our ideas and feelings about people, things and experiences. Neocortex rules over other coping brains when it comes to using words. In fact, neither reptilian or emotional coping brain functions can communicate using words. We know that instinctive brains communicate withelectro-chemical impulses. Neocortex helps children learn to recognize and communicate using words as symbols to name and identify objects. By the time we’re 9 or 10, we are gaining the thinking brain ability to describe how we feel by using words. Words are symbols, like math signs or musical notes, which require the neocortex unique ability for abstract thinking. This same thinking ability helps us to use words to analyze dangerous and stressful situations. The more we use these abilities the greater our intelligence and problem-solving ability becomes. Once we learn to use words instead of angry actions or temper tantrums when our feelings are hurt, we can gain control over instinctive reptilian or emotional impulses. Thinking brain uses words as short cuts to quickly understand and communicate what we fear as well as what we find enjoyable or funny. When we develop our coping skills, new words are added to our neocortex thinking tool box. Neocortex means “new brain.” It is a shining crown sitting atop the more primitive human reptilian and emotional brain levels. With some practice, thinking brain is able to learn how to overrule instinctive brain impulses which control "impulsive" human behavior when we were young children.

6. Ability to create, plan and imagine things that do not exist

How do we develop new coping skills? We need a powerful neocortex capable of not only learning from our experiences, but imagining what doesn’t currently exist. This highest level of all brain function enables humans to create symphonies, discover the theory of gravity, and develop new coping skills we lacked when we were younger. It all begins with our curiosity. We use neocortex to ask “Why?” and “How?” questions. The human thinking brain uses its curiosity to take information from our experiences, combine it with our imagination, and make a great leap of intelligence that enables us to understand and create solutions to problems previously unknown to us. When neocortex applies this planning and thinking power it can create great cities, explore outer space and even understand how our own brain works. We can use neocortex to discover new ways to prevent wars that destroy the lives of thousands of people every year. Think how remarkable that is! For our neocortex to use its creative imagination it must first be able to reduce the confusing and harmful effects of stress that distracts us from developing healthy coping skills. We can learn to use words to describe our fears and feelings. We can identify why we're upset or angry. We can imagine how our own brain works so we can manage reptilian and emotional impulses. We couldn’t do any of these remarkable things were it not for our neocortex thinking, creating and planning functions. As we grow older this creative part of our coping brain helps us to imagine new solutions to old problems.

7. Ability to adapt to change and develop new coping skills, beliefs and behavior


Our brain struggles to understand new or strange experiences or information. We also know that once we develop a thinking habit, or form beliefs about ourselves or others, it may be difficult to change them. Imagine our thinking brain's crevices and wrinkles being hills and river valleys. The river valleys, where we store past experiences, go deeper into our brain the more water (experiences) that runs through them. Once a river of thought and behavior carves a deep course in our brain system of neurons, that river will continue to run along that same deep path whenever we have similar experiences! Now consider how difficult it is for us to change that deep and powerful river’s path. Making that adjustment takes a lot of work. Neocortex has this amazing ability to change the path of its past thinking only by learning new skills, ideas and views about our self , our experiences and our world. Neuroscientists have discovered that our thinking brain is always “changing its mind” by replacing, creating and connecting new thinking cell neurons. This is how we are able to change habits and learn new ways of thinking, coping and behaving. The fact that neocortex has this ability to adapt means we are able to learn new coping skills throughout our life. We do not have to be slaves to “This is what I’ve always done” when it comes to dealing with stress, upsets, anger or sadness. We can learn new ways and new coping habits. Of course this takes lots of practice and brain work. That’s why we have the Brain Works Project.
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