Though the “Triune Brain” theory has been disproved, the base theory stills holds weight

The Triune Brain Theory from Paul D. MacLean was a 60´s formulation on brain activity which explained that we have 3 unique and independent structures, or brains, that dictated action and worked inter-connectedly with each other.

  1. The Lizard/Primitive/Reptilian Brain, which operated involuntary processes like breathing, heart-rate, body temperature, and proprioception. Also aggression, dominance, territoriality, and the like.
  2. The Limbic System, or the emotional brain, where the fight-or-flight response delved from, as well as other emotion, body language, and behavior.
  3. The Neocortex, or the rational brain, where language, logic, the abstract, planning, tactics, and other elements delved from.

Since the rise of neuroscience, this theory has been inevitably debunked as wildly-inaccurate and disproved, yet it still finds its way into conversations with regularity, including academic and scientific circles. It has become one of the hallowed neuro-myths along with the idea we humans only use 10% of our brain, that we have a preferential learning method (visual-auditory-kinesthetic), and the left-brain vs. right-brain default, all of which have fallen by the wayside yet still seem to have every bit the momentum regardless. As learning tools, I can see why they, as metaphors or allegories, have appeal to the over-simplification crowd, but is propagating outdated erroneous theories the best way to teach the average person wanting base information? Aren´t there better ways? Is even a relatable analogy for easy-explanation a viable usage model when that use is inevitably complete garbage? Debatable.

Anyways, instead of moving into current, updated times, maybe some (like the Triune Brain Theory) we should dive into where they originated and go back in history. Sometimes history has brilliant ways of staying true today regardless of how it´s been mangled or manipulated into something seemingly “new and fresh.”

In Plato´s “Republic”, he talked about something dubbed the “Tripartite Soul”, which was not a split-brain concept but based on human desire from the psyche or soul, to which “the mind” would be a good relation in modern transferability. We have 3 elements that make up our decisions and direction:

  1. The logos (logic mnemonic), located in the head or brain, is connected with order, logic, reason, discourse. (reason, rationale)
  2. The thymos (thyroid/hormonal mnemonic), located in the chest or heart, is connected with emotions. (spirit, emotion)
  3. The eros (erotic mnemonic), located in the gut or stomach area, connected with desire or necessity. (appetite, desire)

Freud had his own version with the Tripartite Mind, describing the “Id” (primal/eros), the “ego” (analytical/logos), and the “superego” (emotional/thymos), and affixed it to systems of personality, not brain-function.

So it´s not hard to see MacLean´s original inspirations for the Triune Brain theory. Logos/ego being the neocortex, thymos/superego the limbic system, and eros/id the lizard brain. Not a coincidence whatsoever. That being said, Plato´s (and Freud´s as well) original theory was based on it being soul-, psyche-, personality-, totality-of-mind-applicable, not a neuroscientific theory on cerebral function.

So let’s take this one step further. We are, quite simply, driven by different states and behaviors that affect our actions throughout our daily lives.

  1. ANALYTICAL. We have the logical, rational, reasoning mind. The one grounds us throughout our day. Causes existential-thought. High-level processing. Problem-solving. Analytical-thinking. Critical-thinking. It tries, sometimes desperately, to constantly regulate, reel-in, control, or restrain the other two.
  2. EMOTIONAL. We have emotion, that at its both positive and negative extreme end, runs rampant and threatens to overrule logical thinking – and sometimes does when anger, sadness, joy, euphoria, stress, anxiety, tension operate at their utmost levels. (Hormonal and chemicals have long been linked with our emotions and moods as well.) Is it self-created and artificial or controlled and containable? I won´t get into that here as I´ve about that particular debate in another area already.
  1. PRIMAL. And we have the daily necessities of human-living, evolutionarily. Hunger, sleep, thirst, sex, species-survival. The daily desires and regulators that we require to get through our day from urge, survival, and functionality. (Recently, studies have found a direct correlation between the gut and the brain through the vagus nerve, which has been found to regulate breathing and heartrate as well, so possibly a greater connection to the common-metaphors than we think)

It often takes great conscious-effort to keep restraints on the latter two by the first. When there are too extreme ups-and-downs from the emotional and too desperate a desire or need from the primal, the rational has to intervene to calm things down and put them into perspective. Eventually it usually takes precedence and gets things under control again but how much “damage” has been caused physically, physiologically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically – is another story. Sometimes it can´t and this is often where mental illness, disease, trauma, or addiction manifest. All 3 of these “mind-frames” are present throughout our day for one reason or another.

There’s nothing theoretical about all this. There have always been 3 clearly distinguishable parts of our mind´s diurnal process, not the brain´s. States-of-being based on the incoming stimuli throughout our day and how we manage it and choose to perceive it´s impact. And, yes, those are 2 very different things. The mind is the resultant experience gathered from perception, emotion, instinct, decision, analysis, memory, resilience, creativity, and a host of other elements. It is the result of process, not the cause of it.

Let´s take this even one step further. How do these elements pertain to personal-preservation and societal-safety? Business? Politics? Culture? Ethics? As always, there are 2 angles to look at this: how we control and contain them in ourselves and how we can manipulate them in “opponents” we may end up facing. Well, let´s take a look at how the 3 can impact performance and capability. (It is intentional that I use “CAP-ability” and not “A-bility.”)

Emotion can be good if utilized in a positive directed manner. Audacity, nerve, drivers, motivations are all elements that can super-charge cause and belief, and we all know with even placebo cause and belief how powerful these tools can be. However, many times emotion is affixed, and rightly so, to negativity when it comes to survival, danger, combat, threat, risk. The proverbial “losing one´s head”, irrational decision-making, and “thinking with the liver” traditionally are not good bedfellows with violence-effectiveness. The other end of the spectrum as well; causing the opponent to react with emotion by toying with and drawing-out things they hold dear, provoking or taunting, disrespectful displays or actions, attacking secondary targets while the opponent has prepared for a head-on battle, manipulating arrogance or ego, finding weak-links in the chain, etc. Remember that the “fight-flight-fright” response (AND others) also resides here.

Need and necessity have often been weapons-of-war to manipulate a vulnerable or weak opponent. Playing with the senses, sex, even love or wont, the intentional depletion or destruction of one´s resources to cause daily-necessity panic to rule over trained rational-thought. Attacking while the enemy is tired or in desperate need of downtime, while sleeping. And, if they can be utilized against one´s opponent, no matter what scope (war, battle, psywar, asymmetrical threats), they can definitely be utilized against us from those agents.

The rational mind is a difficult one to attack, especially if it has learned to be detached from all things dogmatic, reliant, or attached to. The rational mind is ever-changing based on knowledge, fact, accuracy, education, and understanding. In business, interpersonal interaction, or combat. However, one who relies too heavily on rationale – things that make sense, that are solely based on logic and clear-thought, formulaic – can have those tools manipulated in them as well. Robots and machines can short-circuit. Emotion and unpredictable behavior can throw them. Necessity can break-down resolve. Trauma can defy logic. Belief can supersede order.

Clearly a healthy dose of the 3 can be and often is most effective, at least in drawing elements from all 3 to form a high-functioning, well-rounded human being that can learn and understand diverse and adaptive situations and circumstances. Best of all worlds, so to speak.

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