Brain Present

Thanks to my good friend Neil for this piece on resilience...

“Wow, thanks mum and dad – just what I always wanted - a brain!” The ultimate birthday present but there’s a minor problem…there’s no instruction manual! “It’s okay, I’ll work out how to use it… shouldn’t take long…”

A familiar story? It should be - it has happened (metaphorically-speaking, of course) to every single human being ever born. To our earliest ancestors, it was critical that we worked it out quickly, as it often meant the difference between life and death. Fortunately for owners of the early brain model, each came pre-packaged with an emergency button as standard. If danger was sensed, this red-alert facility activated the auto-pilot and geared the body up for the ‘fight or flight’ response. Heart rate and blood pressure increased, sending vital emergency energy supplies to the bigger muscles. Unnecessary functions such as digestion and fine motor skills were shut down, eyes widened to take in more information and sweat was produced to keep the body cool.

This emergency brain function undoubtedly enabled early humans to escape from predators, as well as fight for essential food and therefore to pass on increasingly successful genes. Over 100s of 1000s of years the human brain has become more complex, developing sections responsible for higher functions such as memory, emotions and the particularly fancy skill of ‘thinking.’

We have since made use of our developing intellect to create a safer modern world where we no longer need to run from sabre-toothed tigers and a trip to Tescos is far easier than hunting for bison!

However, our emergency button still exists, which is handy for competitive sport or if intruders break into your house at night. Our modern day problem, however, is that our advanced ability to think can sometimes trigger an inappropriate ‘fight or flight’ response. For example, dreading an important meeting, presentation or social situation can often make our heart flutter, stomach clench and mind race.

The brain is a fantastically complex organ with billions of interconnected neurons. Our bodies are responsive to the brain’s instructions but do not distinguish between real and ‘thought-up’ situations. Through genetics, personality, parenting, significant events, peer and social influence we each develop our own unique style of thinking habits. Some styles of thinking can become a contributory factor for some forms of mental ill-health, for example anxiety, phobias, OCD, depression, etc.

Fortunately, with various forms of psychotherapy that examine how thought and behaviour interact, there are ways we can alleviate the symptoms of mental illnesses. If we are proactive, however, and gain a greater awareness of how our brain works, we can gain better control of our thinking habits and so have a better chance of preventing unhealthy manifestations in the first place.

Neil Sladen

‘Mind the Gap’