The Dueling Brain?

One of the key learnings from the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor’s terrific book on positive psychology, involves the dual nature of the brain.  

The newest part of our brain is the pre-frontal cortex or PFC, also known as “the thinker.”  The PFC provides us with the ability to think logically, to make decisions, to plan for future, to regulate our emotions, and to connect with others via our social skills.  For us humans, the development of the PFC was instrumental in making a huge evolutionary leap.

The Amygdala, a.k.a. “the jerk” is the oldest part of our brain. Sometimes referred to as the reptilian part of our mind, the amygdala takes over anytime we are threatened.  It triggers our “fight or flight” response.  Back in prehistoric times, the amygdala kept us alive when a saber tooth tiger appeared and we either escaped into woods or had the courage to stare it down (not sure I recommend that strategy)!  

Fortunately, today there aren’t as many wild animals looking to turn us into dinner.  The amygdala, however, still takes over each time we feel overwhelmed or stressed. Even the smallest setback can trigger us to hit the PANIC button!  The amygdala is in charge when we react angrily and say something we later regret.  Or, when we sulk because we don’t get our way.  These reactions are not conscious choices, but rather biological responses – a.k.a. “emotional high jacking.”  

The research of Daniel Khaneman, the only psychologist to win Nobel Prize for Economics, was key to figuring all this out.  One experiment he did was called the Ultimatum Game.  Two people who didn’t know each other were invited into the lab.  One was given ten $1 bills and instructed to divide the money between himself and the other person – i.e. $5 for me, $5 for you.  Then, the person with the cash gives the other participant an ultimatum – “take it or leave it.”  Here’s the interesting part: if the other person chooses to “leave it,” both get nothing.  

Before Khaneman, it was widely assumed we humans were “rational decision makers.”  When faced with a decision, we would think logically and choose the best course.  In the Ultimatum game, a rational person would always take the deal, no matter how stingy – i.e. $1 is better than no dollars.  Yet…  most participants rejected low offers.  

Why would they do that?  

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Reflection: What are the specific situations in which I get triggered?  What are the patterns?  

Action:  Based on my answer above, anticipate and challenge myself to pause and take three breaths before responding. 

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