5 Fascinating Facts About the Brain to Help Us Understand Our Behaviors, Motivations, and Everyday Habits

Adorable graphic of a brain wearing glasses and pumping iron. Little sweat droplets are falling from his "cheeks."
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Your brain weighs approximately three pounds.

It makes up to 35,000 decisions a day, most in the subconscious mind.

Your brain is not ‘mature’, or fully formed until age 25! Yikes!

60% of your brain is made up of fat.

When you sleep, your brain ‘washes’ away any debris — that is, unnecessary information — to make room for more the next day.

The electrical impulse from a neuron in your brain travels at 268 miles per hour.

Your brain can generate 23 watts of power — enough to power a lightbulb.

Your brain is considered the world’s best and most amazing supercomputer.

There’s no doubt the brain is magnificent. The more I read about it, the more I understand my impulses, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

Everything we experience is happening in a three-pound glob of fatty tissue. When you consider it, it’s mind-bending.

Your entire reality is stored between your eyes. Everything you know, feel, think, believe, and experience is a combination of chemical responses being ‘expressed’ by your cells. Whoa.

As Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “Your brain is a relic of the past.” It’s a treasure trove of everything that’s happened to you. Trippy, right?

Understanding what the heck our brain is doing will help us feel better, develop more self-compassion, and give us the confidence to make resonant choices.

Let’s look at five fascinating facts about the brain to help us understand our behaviors, motivations, and everyday habits.

Cool graphic of a man trapped in someone's head with bars where the scull should be.
Image courtesy of CDD20 on Pixabay

1. Your brain has a built-in ‘negativity bias.’

Our brain learned to keep us alive and safe by going after what was pleasurable (food, sex, warmth) and moving away from what was harmful (predators, bad weather, and ‘the other’).

The brain learned to err on the side of caution with most things because, back in the day, people were dealing with the elements, animals, and other factors that would most certainly lead to death. The brain learned to view most things as dangerous and threatening.

Your brain has evolved to keep you alive.

When you feel fearful, scared, or like you’re being negative, it’s helpful to know this is a built-in part of your brain’s circuitry. It’s not going anywhere. It’s there to protect you.

You may have heard this famous quote from Dr. Rick Hanson, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” That’s because the brain wants to remember what could be harmful, threatening, or bad news.

Next time you are apprehensive about something new, remind yourself of the brain’s warning system. It’s always asking, “Could this possibly kill me?”

This leads us beautifully to the next fun fact.

2. Your brain has three main parts designed to filter every piece of information and social interaction in your experience.

Every new social interaction and piece of information you process goes through the following journey in your brain:

First, it passes through the crocodile brain (or ‘croc brain’) which is the gatekeeper of your higher brain functions. It is also the oldest part of the brain.

The croc brain is a total diva and doesn’t want to do a ton of work. It needs cold, hard facts with any new stimulus. Remember English composition class? The croc brain is the who, what, where, and when filtering system.

The croc brain is scanning for two main things: danger and intrigue (or novelty).

It’s deciding whether to move toward or away from something in a manner of nanoseconds. It’s discerning if something is relevant or urgent to you.

The croc brain’s main functions are to physically keep us alive, which means it manages the fight/flight/freeze/fawn (or a stress cycle) response and runs all our body’s systems. Your croc brain is breathing and pumping your heart right now!

If the croc brain approves of the message and there is no immediate threat, it sends it up to the midbrain, which is the second place the info gets processed.

The midbrain determines the meanings of things and social situations. It gives them context. This is the “social relationships” and “relate to” part of the brain.

The midbrain allows us to feel connected to people and circumstances.

After the info passes through the midbrain, it is sent to the neocortex—the third and final destination.

The neocortex handles problem-solving and being able to think about complex issues and produce answers using reason. This part of the brain took five million years to develop.

So, here is the journey of all new info and social interactions:

1. Croc brain—safety.
2. Midbrain—social relationships.
3. Neocortex—problem-solving.

Knowing this is powerful because now you understand how the brain processes every piece of new info or new interactions you have. Take this with you on a first or blind date, in a pitch, in a tense business situation, or when you deal with family.

3. Your attention span runs dry after 20 minutes.

You know those hour-long board meetings or lectures you attend?

After 20 minutes, you start to peter out, attention-span speaking. The brain is taking in an incredible amount of new stimuli every second. And all that stimuli have to pass through the croc brain first.

The croc brain is running every single function in the body and keeping you socially alive (fight/flight/freeze/fawn).

It’s got a lot of work running all your body systems and determining what ‘stuff’ to send to the midbrain and neocortex. This takes lots of physiological energy.

So, when you sit down to ingest new info, the croc brain puts a limit on it. In fact, after 20 minutes, you will start to forget the new info you learned!

A lot of us have beaten ourselves up or imposed self-criticism when we can’t pay attention. Now, you know why.

It’s not you—it’s your brain’s way of preserving energy.

Now that you know this, you can schedule breaks into your workday. Give your full attention for 20 minutes and then, take a five-minute break.

Allow your croc brain a reprieve from new stimuli: close your eyes and do some conscious breathing.

4. This is how the brain defines “attention.”

The brain determines what to pay attention to based on two things: desire and tension.

In Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff explains, “When a person is feeling both desire and tension, that person is paying serious attention to what’s in front of him or her.”

Two neurotransmitters control attention: dopamine and norepinephrine.

We need these two chemicals surging through our croc brain to pay attention.

To trigger dopamine (or desire), we need the promise of a reward.

To trigger norepinephrine (or tension), we need the threat of something being taken away.

These two states—the promise of a reward and the fear of possibly losing something—create attention.

Another way to think about the tension part of the equation is, “What are the stakes? How important to me is the thing I may lose?

Let’s use a real-world example.

Let’s say you just had a fight with your spouse and someone threatened divorce. After cooling down, you agree to talk it through.

Your attention in the conversation would be based on two things.

>> Desire (the promise of a reward): the relationship will be better, healthier, and a more pleasant experience. Plus, you’ll be happier after this is solved.

>> Tension (the threat of something being taken away): you may lose your partner to a divorce, which would mean sadness, loneliness, or banishment. You could lose your family and your happiness.

These two factors would trigger dopamine and norepinephrine to surge through your croc brain, creating attention.

5. This is why growth and change can feel challenging.

From the brain’s perspective, everything falls into two categories: safety and energy conservation.

When we want to make a change, the brain perceives this as stress. Why?

Because any change (losing weight, changing jobs, leaving a relationship) is a possible threat to your survival, and the brain doesn’t like that.

This is why we can set goals and never achieve the desired results. The brain is constantly pulling us back to what is safe and familiar so it can keep us alive.

This is compounded by the emotional signatures we’ve learned over time. Our cells have become used to certain states of being. Trying to change these emotional signatures can be likened to curbing an addiction to sugar or heroin.

To create new neural networks to will help you move toward new things, the croc brain has to use more energy, and if you remember from above, the croc brain is a total diva. It wants to conserve as much energy as possible to keep our bodies functioning and keep its job as the gatekeeper of all new info that enters our awareness.

The croc brain wants to fall back on familiar patterns (habits) so you don’t go off and do something that could get you killed. Thanks, brain!

From a survival standpoint, growth and change are threats. They put us in harm’s way. They upset the delicate internal ecosystem the brain and body have gotten used to.

Think about a thermostat set at 70 degrees. The job of the thermostat is to keep the temperature at 70 degrees no matter what. If a hot gust of wind disrupts the temperature, the thermostat kicks on and lowers the temp back to 70.

This is exactly how our croc brain views change—a trigger to get the thermostat back to where it’s supposed to be.

It’s late December, and you’re writing your New Year’s resolution list. You’re pumped (dopamine is signaling a possible reward), and you decide this is your year. You’re gonna lose that weight, get that amazing job, and fall in love! Yes!

The croc brain hears this and is not happy.

Lose weight? But what if there’s a famine? No. Get an amazing job? But the one we have now is fine and pays the bills. No. Fall in love? And possibly get heartbroken or dumped? That’s a big hell no.

We feel this in the form of overwhelm, stress, anxiety, and weariness. We realize we should just stay where we are. No sense in getting hurt or being broke. Everything is fine just as it is.

The thermostat just reset itself at 70 degrees. You shrug and reach for the remote, making the croc brain extremely happy.

No change = no death.

Plus, it can now preserve the energy you wanted to use for self-improvement to keep you alive. Bonus!

The Power of Asking Questions for Self-Healing

Phew! That was a lot, but I know it sheds light on the more significant issues we face. Now that you know a little more about what the brain is doing, you can give yourself some slack and regroup when something is feeling challenging.

Conditioning runs deep. The best way to change anything you don’t like is to become curious about it.

Start asking questions when yucky feelings arise:

Whose energy is this? Do I like how it feels?

What internal changes happen when I feel _________?

Where are these thoughts coming from? What thought feels better?

What am I truly afraid of? What am I terrified of losing or gaining?

Questions are effective for self-healing because they point the prefrontal lobe in a different direction. When we ask a specific question, our brain will fire to help us find the answer.

Remember to ground and root while doing this exercise. Make sure you’re connected to your body and pelvic bowl. Allow answers to come to you rather than hunting them down.

Keep asking questions until you find the one that gives you a visceral response — then explore it with meditation.

Below are five insightful books on the brain so you can continue to learn about this intriguing organ:

Person stuck behind a stack of open books just like in college.
Image courtesy of Pixabay on Pexels

1. Innercise by John Assaraf (if you buy the book, you get access to audios and videos on John’s website to help you with ‘brain training’).
2. Hardwiring Happiness by Dr. Rick Hanson
3. Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff
4. The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson
5. Breath by James Nestor

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