Understanding Your Brain

by Artius Psychologist, Melisa Kaya

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean (1990) proposed that our brain develops in three sequential stages:

Stage 1: The Survival Brain. Our survival brain (i.e. brain stem) is the first part of our brain to develop. It is in charge of all the automatic processes that keep us alive, such as breathing, blood flow, and digestion.

Stage 2: The Emotional Brain Our emotional brain (i.e. limbic system) works closely with the survival brain to make sure our needs are met. Specifically, that we are feeling safe, in control, happy, and connected – all things that are important for our survival!

Stage 3: The Smart Brain. Our smart brain (i.e. frontal lobe) is in charge of “executive functioning”, which essentially relates to things like problem solving, decision making, and thinking rationally.


Let us think back to cave man days and when our brains were evolving. When a cave man’s safety was threatened by something dangerous (like a wild bear), their Emotional Brain would notice the danger and their Survival Brain would activate Survival Mode. It would trigger one of three responses to keep the cave man safe:

  • Fight (confront the bear)
  • Flight (hide away in the cave)
  • Freeze (play dead until the bear goes away)

Nowadays, it doesn’t need to be a wild bear in front of us for our brain to go into Survival Mode. It can be anything our brain perceives as unsafe, painful, or when it’s lost a sense of control or connection with others.

When we experience distress (and our brain goes into Survival Mode), scans of the brain show that our cortical blood flow is redirected to the Survival Brain – it does this, so that all resources are sent to the part of the brain that traditionally keeps us safe from danger.

However, this means that our Smart Brain has less power running to it and cannot function properly. We can experience things like fogginess, difficulty problem solving, and trouble thinking clearly or focusing.

Starcke et al. (2016) investigated how stress affects our smart brain’s functioning, through testing 40 healthy participants (20 females, 20 males) between the ages of 20 to 67 years old. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions; Stress Induction (participants were put through a series of fast-paced mathematical tasks designed to elicit stress through aversive sounds when you gave a wrong or slow answer), and Control Condition (participants were simply asked to relax). Their results showed that stressed participants showed poor performance compared to non-stressed participants in almost all executive functioning tasks.

Survival Mode is adaptive because it helps us notice and react to threats, but when constantly turned on, it can take over. All of a sudden, it doesn’t have to be a bear that triggers our cave man’s Survival Mode, but it can be a shadow, rustling of trees, or even the colour brown. This is when we find our cave man just surviving, and not thriving.

The good news is the brain can change – and you can change it! You can change your brain’s wirings and shift an automatic reaction into a considered response. It takes time and practice, but we know it is possible to strengthen our Smart Brain and turn off Survival Mode, particularly when it is not helpful for it to be on or when it doesn’t need to be on.

The first step is better understanding your brain!


MacLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York, United States: Plenum Press.

Starcke, K., Wiesen, C., Trotzke, P., & Brand, M. (2016). Effects of acute laboratory stress on executive functions. Frontier Psychology, 7 (pp. 1-8). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00461.