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PART II: Limbic Brain... The Algorithm

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

We are emotional beings. When something hard happens to us, emotion drives. Cognition or thinking is not sitting shotgun next to behavior in the cab of the truck. Thinking and behavior are hog tied in the back, and emotion is driving like a bat out of hell.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., MSW

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From the Reptilian Brain, signals are quickly processed by the Limbic Brian, also referred to as the emotional or mammalian brain.

Every piece of information our brain receives and sends is run through this emotional filter that kicks off a cascade of physiological reactions, our energy in motion emotions.

Unlike the other two parts of our brain, the processing of the limbic brain occurs non-consciously. This upends a commonly held belief that we have the ability to control our emotions. Instead, emotions are popping off long before our “thinking” brain is even at bat.

Processing in the limbic brain is much like a machine learning algorithm, comparing sensory data from our body with our unique database of emotional memories and spits out a conditioned response.

This is an automatic process and lighting fast, allowing us to respond quickly to our environment. Its efficiency is also a double edge sword, particularly when the conditioned response it calculates and disseminates, faster than we can control, is in dissonance with what we actually desire.

Changing our conditioned responses involves, in part, retraining the algorithm. Inputting new and updated data/associations into our emotional database until the new sensory data becomes more salient than the old. While our bodies are always flexible and seeking ways to heal, an emotional database update is not a minor undertaking as 75% of this circuitry is in place by the age of three, prior to much of our access to language.

This is not just a theoretical, mental or spiritual process. When we engage in cultivating a new

way to automatically respond, we are also literally building brand new neuropathways. These new pathways are often compared to the construction of new roadways. They take a long time to build and even afterwards, it takes a long time to remember to change your route and use the new road even when it is better in every way.

In order to add new data to our emotional database, we have to introduce new sensory information. We have to tell our bodies to disobey the safe, comfortable conditioned marching orders from our limbic brain. This disobedience can set off all kinds of safety alarm bells. Our bodies demand the safety of the known and predictable until they relax into a new homeostasis. That messy middle can be intensely and overwhelming uncomfortable on every level, from physical to spiritual.

Further, built on our lineage, bio-makeup and experiences, no two emotional databases are alike. While we can draw inspiration and insight from the journeys of those around us, we rarely can simply retrofit another’s algorithmic procedure into our own. It may get us started but rarely truly fulfills our own personal needs.

And so. That habit we have been trying to change but… just. can’t. do it? It feels hard because it is hard. We are not dumb or morally deficient or lacking grit, we are literally rewiring our brains, cell by cell. And that takes some damned time, patience, and skill. It takes compassion.

5 Post Series: (Rolling out Weekly)

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