THE LIFE COACH SCHOOL – Episode 109

It’s really appropriate that we are talking about the PRE-FRONT CORTEX on FRIDAY FITNESS AND HEALTH. I’m going to, again, use Brooke’s exact words to understand this part of the brain, in our three-part series on the human brain.

“The front part of our brain, the PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX, is what’s involved in complex thinking, in planning, in executive function. It’s where we write our goals. It’s how we suppress our urges. It’s where our conscious decision-making is. It’s where conscious awareness is, self-awareness. It’s where we gain meaning. It’s where we have free will, determination. It’s where we can really consider and imagine and develop ideas about what we want to have happened in our lives.

Now, there’s a really important distinction that we need to make between the AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS and the PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX. Basically, everything that happens in our PRE-FRONT CORTEX is slow and deliberate and thoughtful, and it’s where we learn new material and it’s where we think up new ideas, but that process requires a lot of brain energy to pay attention, to focus, to think about new things, to learn new things. Again, it’s slow and very deliberate.

AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS = very little energy, very fast.

PRE-FRONT CORTEX = very slow, very deliberate.

I was explaining the difference between these two to some of my students. When you’re in the moment of something where you’re making a flash decision or a flash reaction, your AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS will always come up with the answer first (using your neural pathways).”

And sometimes that’s really really helpful.

“Two plus two, four, right? It’s memorized. That’s a neural pathway that we have. We didn’t actually have to do addition with our PRE-FRONT CORTEX because we had that as a neural pathway that’s in there. It was quicker. We didn’t have to rely on any kind of calculation. We just, boom, have the answer.

Most of us don’t want to put a lot of effort into thinking. If I say to you, ‘What is 24,697 x 38,429’ very few of you are excited to work that calculation out – it’s not memorized. We will need the PRE-FRONT CORTEX. We have to be very motivated in order to get that slow thinking part of our brain to get going to make a decision to actually solve a problem.

And most of you are like, ‘Yeah, no thanks.’ That’s how most of us are because we’re not excited to get our brain working on something unless there’s a reason. But if I told you, ‘Hey, you add those two numbers up, I’ll give you that amount in cash,’ then most all of you would do it. You have a good motivation.”

We have a couple of things going on here, right? We have our AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS that memorizes, and it makes life more efficient and easier. Then we have the PRE-FRONT CORTEX that decides whether it’s worth it to learn something new, and then, itself, has to go through the work to do or learn that new thing.

So, though it doesn’t feel like it sometimes – sometimes our AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS just tells us “no” – we have a choice, every time, to accept the “no” or the “yes” from the AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS, or to reconsider using the PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX.

Brooke uses the example of a cupcake to illustrate this principle of choice:

“If I ask you, ‘Do you want a cupcake?’ If the automatic desire for sugar and flour in your brain is active, you might respond with ‘yes’ before your PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX has had a chance to even consider the consequences of having that cupcake. It’s really important to understand that because so many of us feel like we are doing things against our own will. We feel like we say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’.”

Our AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS makes us feel like we don’t have a choice. We’ve eaten sweets a million times over again, and we’re not dead yet, so it must be working, so the answer is “yes”. But, we really do have a choice. But it does take more effort.

“That automatic part of our brain is so efficient, it makes decisions and directs attention much more quickly than the PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX, that deliberate, slow executive part of our brain.

How do we solve this problem? Because this clearly is an issue, especially when it comes to food (and exercise and sleep and overall health). You’re not wanting to overeat, you’re not wanting to choose to not workout. So often we will make a decision that isn’t in our long-term best interest because that AUTOMATIC CONSCIOUSNESS part of our brain comes up with the answer before we’d had a chance to intervene.

This is important to remember because you want to be able to use the executive function of your brain. You want to be able to use the best part of yourself as a human being in a way that will serve whatever goals you want in your life! You want this! But you need to work with your brain and understand that it’s programmed to be efficient, and that the brain has to have a great motivation – like the money if you do the multiplication – in order to use the energy that is required to think on that higher level.

The brain is not motivated to go in and evaluate things. You have to direct that PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX to do that evaluation, because you believe it’s going to have an upside. Why am I going to do that multiplication problem? Because I’m going to get the cash on the end, so it’s worth expending that energy.

Why do I want to look at my automatic neural pathways? Because I know that I can change them and get more of the results I want in my life.

Think about the things that you have in your life that are automatic neural pathways that aren’t serving you.”

Some of my neural pathways to consider:

  • I’m bored, so I open the fridge.
  • I’m tired, so I stay in bed instead of going to the gym.
  • I sit down at the computer to blog, and my right hand goes straight up to my scalp. Remember my trichotillomania? That is a neural pathway that I have only strengthened and reaffirmed, day after day, year after year. But it is not serving me well. I would love to redirect my hand by breaking up that neural pathway.
  • I feel stress, so I don’t sleep. And that doesn’t feel like a choice, right? But it is a neural pathway I have walked, over and over again, until it has become an automatic response to stress.

“You want to think about what are the automatic pathways that you have created in your brain that aren’t serving you.”

Tomorrow we are going to get into what we have to do to make something – a new thing, a new habit that we have chosen intentionally because it will lead us to where we want to be – into a neural habit.