Our two brains


When our emotional (limbic) brain and our cognitive (neocortex) brain are in conflict, we suffer negative emotions like depression, anxiety, jealousy, or guilt.

Think of our brain as having two components, one component sitting inside the other, much like a yolk sits inside the white of an egg. The deep and primitive emotional/instinctive component of the brain is known as the limbic system, and it is found in all mammals. It is our unconscious, survival part of the brain which runs our autonomic nervous system, regulating breathing, heart-rate, sexual drive, hormones etc. It takes in all kinds of information, most completely below our level of awareness, and forces us to pay attention to stuff that it perceives may harm us. We don’t feel the emotions of our limbic system in our head; we feel them in the body – nervousness in our gut, love in our heart, fear in our throat or in the hairs of our skin, for example. It is said that all our emotions are stored in the body. The limbic system is the source of our passion.

The neocortex (literally the “new bark”) is much newer in terms of our evolutionary history, it surrounds the emotional part, forming the cognitive component of our brain, and is our source of rational, logical thought. The neocortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex just behind our forehead, is the source of reason, and is what separates us from our fellow creatures on this planet. The neocortex and the limbic components don't communicate with each other very well – they each do their own thing and come to their own conclusions.  Rational thought seems to stay in the head, whereas our emotions are communicated via the body primarily.

When the conclusions they come to regarding a particular topic are different, we suffer emotional distress. The cognitive part can be good at overriding messages coming from the emotional part. Your gut is saying one thing, but your rational mind is saying another, whether it is about staying in an unhappy relationship, taking that promotion that is going to have you working like a dog, or going to that meeting instead of your child’s school play. Many of us are quite good at squelching our emotions because it is not always acceptable in our society to express them. For example, especially men are not supposed to cry in public, and we are all supposed to get over and stop talking about the death of a loved one in about a week. Less frequently passion dominates over reason, in love triangles for example. Great literature has been written about conflicts between reason and passion, and the despair this causes. And if disharmony between the reason and passion are the rule rather than the exception, stress diseases like heart disease, cancer, extreme fatigue etc. can develop.

As language and cognition have limited access to the emotional part of the brain, getting over emotional pain by logically dissecting an issue to death may not work too well. This may be the reason why talk therapy takes so very long. One may logically understand why we are feeling what we are feeling which can be helpful, but that does not necessarily help us stop feeling the negative emotion. Perhaps a better way to deal with difficult emotions is through the body, since the body is the limbic brain’s communication system. Many people have found themselves suddenly crying at a painful memory that unexpectedly pops into their mind while having a massage for example. Next week I'll discuss a method of tuning into the body in order to control one's stress.

The ideas in this tip come from a book I really enjoyed – The Instinct to Heal – Curing Depression, Anxiety, and Stress without Drugs and without Talk Therapy, by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., PhD.

If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to www.wellnesstips.ca.

Related tips
How hormones, neurotransmitters and steroids work
Mind and body; psyche and soma
Acute vs chronic stress

Servan-Schreiber, David MD, PhD. The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy Rodale Inc., US, 2004.

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

To subscribe go to www.wellnesstips.ca


  1. Patti said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Another excellent book on “our emotional (limbic) brain and our cognitive (neocortex) brain are in conflict” is by Dr. Gabor Mate – When the Body Says No (the Hidden Cost of Stress). An awesome read…

  2. white nursing scrubs for men said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 5:05 am

    Pretty impressive article. I just came across your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way Ill be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

  3. Liz said,

    April 20, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

    As always, a great summary. There are more and more books out there about this topic, thank you for bringing this one to my attention. I too recently read When the Body Says No by Gabor and found it insightful and compelling. The Instinct to Heal has been added to my list of books to read…
    Thank you!

RSS feed for comments on this post