There's this popular model of the brain that helps understand how we think and act, how needs, emotions, behavior and rational thought are all linked together in a three-part model of the grey mass. It's called "the triune brain model" and it splits the brain in three parts: the reptilian brain, the limbic system and the neo-cortex.
Image by DJ - source: Flickr
It's a very simple model that provides an easy way to think about the most complex organ out there, the human brain. The first and most primitive part of the brain is the reptilian brain; this is concerned with anything to do with survival and is completely unconscious. It regulates all automatic functions like breathing, your heartbeat and body-temperature. This part of the brain doesn't understand language and only responds directly to images and sounds, and automatically responds to those according to basic rules of survival; move away from pain and danger, and move towards pleasure and reproduction. If you've ever wondered why "sex sells", here's your answer.
The reptilian brain, also called the r-complex, has a direct link with the next layer, the limbic system that to a large degree regulates our emotional state. When external stimuli cause the reptilian brain to perceive a threat, it in turn causes the limbic system to generate the appropriate emotional state, like fear. It's been very much established that our reptilian brain is more concerned with avoiding pain than moving toward pleasure; when we hear something in the bush in the dark, we assume danger because it gives the best chance of survival, it's the cautious thing to do.
The final and most recently evolved part is the neocortex, where the conscious, thinking brain resides. The neocortex is linked to the limbic system in much the same way as the limbic system is linked to the r-complex. If you've ever heard about how we're making most decisions based on how we feel about something or someone, and much less based on rational thought, the triune brain model gives us a handle on how to understand this. But this is not the whole story yet.
The Triune Brain in 60 seconds
We've only discussed the bottom-up approach up to this point, how the r-complex communicates with the limbic system, and the limbic system with the neocortex. It's important to understand this route works the other way around to, it only takes more effort and energy. While "operating" the r-complex and the limbic system is done on auto-pilot, rational thought costs energy and a conscious effort, literally. So when we're afraid, let's say we see something horrible, the r-complex perceives a threat, triggers fear, causing fight-or-flight behavior and making the heart beat faster. We can now influence the reptilian brain through conscious thought; by thinking real hard about something we love, something that gives us pleasure, we can calm our mind and even make our heartbeat slow down again.
Now you have a start to begin understanding advertising and (government) propaganda; they both communicate directly to our reptilian brains to change our behavior via the limbic system. Domination or submission is another binary choice made by the r-complex, so it's easy to understand why governments use fear in order to cause the people to submit to actions that protect them and support actions that help "us" dominate "them," the enemy. As mentioned before, this is why "sex sells" is so famous and easily subscribed to. It's why advertising messages are largely in a visual format, and when text is used, it's always communicating to the reptile in us, it's why it plays into our innate selfishness by addressing us personally ,"you" are worth it, what did "you" do to decrease your carbon-footprint, and so on.
What "you" do with this information, dear reader, is completely up to you. I even suspect most of you are already aware of all this, the part about advertising being geared toward emotions at the very least. And its success should be a clear indication that we're still primarily emotional, and not rational creatures, and maybe we'll forever stay like that because the r-complex will forever be older than the neocortex. Are we doomed then, to forever stay slaves to our emotions..?
Master Your Life by Understanding Triune Brain Model
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