Two Brains In One

Do you have ideas for what you want for your life this new year, this new decade? Some goals, life changes? Yep, me too.

Setting a goal and then working toward it always has a secondary benefit, over and above whatever our actual goal is: it’s good exercise for our higher brain.

There’s a ton of great information on the human brain, but here’s the part that fascinates me, and makes so much sense of my experience. Simply put, we have two very different kinds of brain function. 

The prefrontal cortex is what I like to call our higher brain. It’s the source of our highest aspirations, as well as our determination to work through the hard stuff. It’s about consciousness and growth and owning our lives. It’s about principles and spirituality.

The other, primal part of our brain is dedicated to our basic survival, and motivates us to avoid pain, seek instant pleasure and spend as little energy as possible. It’s what allows us to drive, open a door and use a fork with little thought or effort. It also can keep us from change, from challenging ourselves, from doing new or hard things.

When we set a new goal, our primal brain works against us. That’s the resistance we feel, why it seems so hard at first.

This year my new goal feels big and important to me, and has me freaking out a bit. Here’s how I use knowing about my brain’s dual functions to:

…have more self compassion. It helps me not judge myself as weak or unprincipled- just someone who has a human brain. 

…work smarter: with, not against myself. I get that setting my goal is the easy part. Achieving it requires me to change my behavior, manage my emotions and think about my life in new ways. All that takes higher brain function work, which takes effort and focus, but I know that with time my primal brain will kick in to help make the new habits and ways of thinking smoother and more habitual. I appreciate how the two functions each serve a different, complementary purpose.

…provide extra, and deeper, motivation. Even when my determination wavers around my current goal, I remember that every time I choose to stick with my plan or do the hard thing required, I am strengthening my integrity, my confidence, my faith in myself. My ability and capacity for creating my best self. For living more consciously and fully. 

Setting a goal or resolution is an act of faith in ourselves. It has the capacity for strengthening the best and highest part of ourselves.