The Triune Brain – Why stress stops us from thinking clearly and what we can do about it
I am pretty sure every parent and teacher has experienced the frustration of a child or learner going to the most extreme lengths to avoid doing/studying seemingly their maths or science (or any other subject really). Classic distractions include sudden hunger that must be addressed immediately with the most extravagant self-made sandwich, the exhaustion that a nap can only overcome, a bout of crying, or the need for the loo, which is dragged out for as long as possible. Sometimes these behaviours are accommodated with irritability and an eagerness to argue.
Sound familiar? Well, have you ever stopped to wonder why our children behave in this way? We might be quick to label it as laziness or demotivation. Still, there is a scientific explanation as to what happens in our brains when faced with an uncomfortable situation, such as having to study a subject one finds quite tricky.
Psychologist Paul Maclean (1988) theorised about the Triune Brain. The brain can be divided into three metaphorical levels or areas.
1. Reptilian brain – The inner brain. This is part of the brain that focuses on our biological needs for survival, such as feeding, fighting, excretion and sleep.
2. Lymbic System – The middle brain. This part of the brain interprets incoming stimuli and classifies them as positive or negative based on previous experiences.
3. Neo-cortex – The outer brain. Where rational thought, reasoning, motor control, and memory occur.
When a learner is faced with the need to study for or practice a subject, their brain will interpret that stimulus (be it visual from their books or audio from mom telling them to study) as either positive or negative. Based on their brain’s interpretation of the stimulus, the learners will either ‘up-shift’ or ‘down-shift’. The best way to explain what this means is with the example below:
I used to participate in a research team that offered a Math club to learners in an under-resourced school. The particular focus of my research was to explore the emotions these learners experienced about Maths. Our club ran for two-hour sessions on Saturdays. In the beginning, our sessions were disjointed. After just a few minutes of engagement with the day’s task, the learner would start to complain of tiredness or needing the toilet. They would fall asleep on their arms or disappear to the loo for long periods. They would insist on a lunch break within the session’s first hour and avoid returning to class after eating. They would also often complain that the Maths was ‘heavy’. I wondered what they meant by ‘heavy’ but found that they lacked the emotional vocabulary to be able to communicate what they were experiencing. I developed a lexicon (word bank) to help them identify their emotions and causes. In each session, I would prompt the learners to choose a word that best describes their emotional state and explain why they feel that way. I repeated this instruction when I could see the learners were engaging well with the Maths task and again when I observed them become restless and less willing to participate.
We quickly noticed that they would revert to addressing their physiological needs when the Maths became more challenging. This is down-shifting. When someone experiences an uncomfortable stimulus (such as a problematic Maths question) which evokes a negative emotion, that person can down-shift into their Reptilian brain if they do not have the tools to name, identify and process that emotion. They will then only be able to focus on their biological needs, such as feeding, sleeping, protecting themselves (defensive behaviour) and excretion.
Within a few weeks, our learners developed the skill to name their emotions and talk to us about what is causing these, often negative, emotions. By talking through their emotions and understanding that struggling was a natural part of learning, they could up-shift within just a few sessions. When someone up-shifts, they can process the negative emotion and shift into the neo-cortex, where they can use reasoning and logical thought to continue learning or solve a problem. Our learners tried harder on challenging Maths questions and persisted more when they struggled. They asked for bathroom breaks less frequently, and we even stopped having lunch breaks in the middle of our sessions. They could concentrate for longer, and it was easier to get ‘stuck into’ the maths.
To me, teenagers are in a precarious part of their development, and it often feels as if their emotional intelligence is still catching up to their intellectual abilities. That means that our teenagers, although they often behave and communicate as young adults, may not yet have the emotional tools to identify and process their emotions so they can up-shift. They may still easily down-shift and display behaviours that we perceive as ‘avoiding studying’ or laziness.
The stress associated with studying and exams can block our children from thinking clearly and reasoning logically. It can impair their working memory, making it harder to get the work in their heads, for lack of a better phrase.
Once we observe this behaviour in our children, the best thing we can do is to create a space in which these learners can explore and process their uncomfortable emotions. Tools such as journaling or even talking to a trusted adult can be very helpful in these instances. Processing emotions are crucial to up-shifting and effective studying and thinking.
So next time your teen is perceived as lazy or avoiding their academics, perhaps take some time to chat through their emotions… and maybe even reflect on your own.