If you could think of anything, what would you think of ?
Would you remember your childhood? Would you call up a friend? Would you focus on your work? Or let your mind drift off into that Netflix movie? This is the problem our brain is facing all our lives. Or to be more specific, the prefrontal cortex (or PFC) is facing this problem.
The PFC is the most recently evolved part of our brain, and it has the job of keeping you reasonable, disciplined, on time and coming up with and sticking to a plan of action.
The PFC has at its disposal, the most powerful tool in our cognitive arsenal - ‘Attention’. Attention is the laser beam that can illuminate anything or pull anything apart. But just like a laser beam, it can only be pointed at one thing at a time. And in a world filled with objects vying for your attention, one of the most important jobs the PFC has to do is to figure out what to spend this powerful resource on.
So it turns towards another part of the brain, a part that has evolved several million years before the PFC did and has far more experience in these matters - the Limbic system.
The limbic system is the ancient part of our brain dealing with our most primal instincts of survival. It is closely connected to our memories and it influences an animal’s behaviour by controlling the engine of its actions - the animal’s emotions. For an animal, to feel an emotion is to act on it. To feel anger is to display anger. To feel fear is to freeze up or fly away. To feel sexually aroused is to try and mate. The limbic system has a direct call on the ultimate action taken by that animal’s brain.
But human beings aren’t like other animals. Our PFC isn’t a complete slave to the Limbic impulses; atleast, it shouldn’t be. Evolution has spent all this time and energy developing a functional PFC so that we can say an important message to the limbic system - “Hold on, let me think about that!”
But just as it shouldn’t agree to every limbic command, the purpose of the PFC is also not to say '“No!” to every limbic request. The true balance is in letting the limbic say what it wants to, and making a decision after considering where our emotions lie. After all, to deny all emotions is to deny what makes us human, and to give in to all emotions is to deny what makes us human.
An emotion is a guide. In a world of multiple conflicts, it is a ‘suggestion’ that reveals our past experiences and our deep rooted desires. Whether we wish to take up that suggestion is at our discretion.
Just like the captain of a ship need not turn the wheel to every shore, you need not give in to every emotion. Emotions are lighthouses; they help you keep track of where you’ve come from, and where you are going.
Cheers and love,
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