The human brain never ceases to amaze me. It is truly an amazing piece of equipment made up of miniscule and precise parts that coordinate and move our body in ways we think about and ways we don’t even have to think about. You would think that having had a brain for as long as humans have existed, we might know a bit more about it by now. Technology and machines that go “ping” are helping us to advance our knowledge further and further each day. In the meantime, I find it easy to explain a lot of human behaviour by thinking about the brain being made up of sections or parts that each have a an important job to do when we react to things.
The brain seems to have some really quite primitive parts and some really extra clever bits. The primitive parts are the bits that look after our essential survival – things like breathing, eating, pooing and running away from dangerous things.
The Chook Brain
I have two backyard chickens, Daphne and Valma. Now, while I love them lots, I can acknowledge that Daphne and Valma are great at eating, pooing and laying eggs, but they are not great at more complex things like playing the piano, helping me with my homework problems or knowing the difference between my vegie seedlings and weeds. Compared to human brains, Daphne and Valma have very primitive brains. Daphne and Valma have chook brains that help them with the things they really need to know how to do – eat, poo, lay eggs and run away from danger – “Bercark!!!”
Humans have a part of their brain that is kind of like a chook brain. The chook brain part in our brain is really quite primitive and responsible for helping us with basic jobs and with keeping our bodies safe.
As well as a chook brain, we humans also have a part of the brain that allows us to do all those things that chicken cannot do – solve problems, think things through, focus on one thing for a long time and put off things that we want to do because there are other things we know are more important. This region of the brain is generally referred to as the human cortex.
It takes about 25 years for humans to have a fully grown cortex. When we are newborns, our brains are very primitive. When we are newborn we can poo and eat and startle if we get a fright. As we age and our brain grows, the cortex gets able to do more and more things.
Until we have a fully developed cortex part of our brain, we really need to borrow the cortex of safe and loving adults to help us make good decisions.
Reacting to Threats
The other amazing thing about our chook brain and cortex, is how they react to danger. If something is a really big threat, then our chook brain (the bit that looks after us if we need to run away) kicks in and takes over total control of our brain and body. If it’s a really big scary thing, our chook brain will get us ready to run away or to fight it off.
When you think about it, this is really important. If you are, say, walking through the jungle and see a tiger, this is not a good time to sit down to do homework, remember to get milk and bread on the way home, make and eat a sandwich, or to calculate the square root of a very large number. We don’t have time to use our cortex much.
When you see a tiger in your jungle, its a good time to run – and run fast. Our chook brain helps us do this. The cortex shuts down thinking and planning and our body gets ready to take care of us. Our heart goes faster to beat more blood to our big muscles, our breathing changes, our muscles get tense, our vision changes, our bellies can get uptight and sore (and our bowels can get loose), we get sweaty and all we can focus on is the scary thing. “Bercarck!!!”
After we have run from the tiger or have beaten it down with our bare hands and big oxygen-rich-blood-filled muscles, we can take a big breath out and sigh with relief. Our cortex can start to come back online. We can start to think, remember and make sense of more things. The process of moving from chook brain to cortex mode might take awhile and we can feel a bity wobbly while this happens and sometimes we can be on high alert for quite some time.
Tigers These Days
These days, not many of us come across actual tigers in jungles. Many of the things our brain thinks are scary are ideas or worries or memories that frighten us. We can go chook brained even just thinking about or imagining something that threaten us – an accident, a trauma, or something that causes death – bodily death or social death. We don’t run or take on too many tigers, instead we react in a range of different ways – maybe tantrums, panic or meltdown.
Calming the Chook Brain
The chook brain and the cortex have lots to answer for when it comes to managing anxiety, worries and trauma. They can also help us understand what we need to do to be able to stay calm and help children (who don’t yet have a fully grown cortex) to stay calm.
To get to know your chook brain a little better, think about the things that threaten you or that might be threatening your child. The threat may be real and current, a memory of a past threat (trauma) or a prediction about a threat that hasn’t even happened yet (worry).
Get to know the early warning signs that you (or your child) are about to go chook-brained. Do you notice a change in your heart rate, a change in your breathing, or tightness in your muscles? When you notice the warning signs, try to keep a hold of your cortex or step in to help your child use more cortex. Check in with your breathing and try to slow it and try to encourage your child to do the same. Try to stretch your muscles or check in with your thoughts to see if you really need to be so alarmed. Think, say and do things that will soothe you and soothe your child.
When your cortex comes back, have a talk about what happened and use your full brain to problem solve plan ahead for what you might do if the scary thing, thought or memory comes back again. Your child might like to draw or write a story or poem to help them.