Over the last decade there has been an explosion of new findings and public interest in neuroscience. However, most books and resources don’t demonstrate and explain in practical and concrete terms how these discoveries apply to everyday life experiences.
My challenge, as a brain geek and mind-hacker, was to find a way to make sense of all this information and create a practical approach that I could use myself as well as share more broadly, especially with audiences without in-depth scientific training and knowledge, such as students in inner-city high schools.
I chose to focus on three emotional states of the brain as a simple framework to connect my state of mind to different patterns of brain activation: Brain 1.0, Brain 2.0, and Brain 3.0. These aren’t distinct areas of the brain, but rather combinations of neural networks that fire in varying patterns as different mental processes occur. Like a set of Legos that can be made into any number of shapes, you can learn to see how your emotional life is reflected in these patterns and how to spend more time in Brain 3.0 and beyond.
Brain 1.0: The Freeze-Flight-Fight Cascade
Brain 1.0 is an archetypal brain activation pattern in which the neural circuitry triggering the body’s defensive mechanisms is strongly aroused. This is commonly called a fight-or-flight response, but according to Joseph LeDoux, one of the leading researchers on the threat response, the actual defensive reactions automatically triggered by danger are to “freeze first; flee if you can; fight if you must.” Therefore, I prefer to call it the “freeze-flight-fight” cascade to be more precise.
The triggering of Brain 1.0 tends to reduce blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (the key structure of Brain 3.0 that enables executive functioning), and is often indicated by a highly activated amygdala; however, this doesn’t mean the amygdala is the center of fear in the brain. In MRI studies, the amygdala seems to activate whenever people process emotions in pictures of faces and encounter uncertainty and novel situations, so the amygdala’s key function may be to make split-second assessments about whether we are safe or need to be on guard.
Regardless of our emotional state, the amygdala continuously operates in the background to read emotions in other people and keep us safe. It may also play a role in encoding memory by using emotions to tag experiences that are relevant to our survival and well-being so we can more easily recall them. When Brain 1.0 is highly activated it doesn't operate in isolation—we may still continue to engage some areas of the prefrontal cortex (Brain 3.0) and reward circuits (Brain 2.0) to do things like wallow in self-pity (which requires neural networks in the prefrontal cortex involved in language and autobiographical memory) or eat an entire tub of ice cream (which requires both Brain 3.0, to decide which flavor to eat, and Brain 2.0, to coordinate the movements of eating).
Brain 2.0: The Reward Pattern
Brain 2.0 is an archetypal brain-wide activation pattern in which the reward circuitry (located in the basal ganglia and hypothalamus) is strongly activated. When we are in Brain 2.0, some of the areas of the prefrontal cortex are deactivated or impaired (such as the circuits that enable us to control impulses, think critically, and carefully analyze the situation), but other areas are strongly engaged (such as the motor areas). Regardless of our emotional state, the basal ganglia continuously operate in the background, enabling our autopilots to carry out any routinized motor movements we do while multitasking, such as typing notes while listening to a lecture, holding a book while we read, or eating and drinking while engaging in conversation at a dinner party.
Brain 3.0: Command and Control Center
Brain 3.0 is an archetypal brain-wide activation pattern in which the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain inside the forehead that underlies our capacity for executive functioning and emotional regulation) is not impaired or deactivated.
Again this doesn’t mean the prefrontal cortex is the only structure that contributes to the experience of Brain 3.0. In fact, when we are in Brain 3.0, we are still actively engaging key structures of Brain 2.0 and Brain 1.0 to help us navigate our daily life, in particular our social interactions. Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 can hijack us only when Brain 3.0 is underdeveloped or impaired. When brain 3.0 is strong, we can wisely harness Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 to effectively and efficiently navigate the world.
Beyond Brain 3.0: Access to Your “Higher Self”
Over time the most frequent patterns of brain activation we experience shape our brain structure, or what is called our connectome. To be predominately in Brain 3.0, rather than Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0, requires activating and strengthening the neural pathways that connect the prefrontal cortex into Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 so frequently that these circuits become superhighways.
Surprisingly, as I transformed by shifting more and more into Brain 3.0, I also started to have unexplainable experiences that forced me to acknowledge that it is very possible that the essence of who and what “I” really am can never be fully explained by neuroscience nor limited to the physical matter making up my brain.
I have to confess that as someone who began this journey as a scientifically oriented skeptic with no religious faith or spiritual beliefs, I was utterly baffled by how it was even possible that my quest for self-actualization through science could lead me to rediscover and reconnect with a “soul” or “higher self” that, for the time being, lies beyond the realm of present-day science and technology to investigate.
For a long time, my mind struggled to come to terms with this ironic unfolding. I doubled down even more on the science and tried to find ways to explain it away or dismiss these experiences as my imagination or as hallucinations, but it was all in vain. The metamorphosis that had already begun couldn’t be stopped or reversed. When the light and wisdom of the higher self wants to shine through, there comes a point when the ego cannot hold it back or dim it any longer.
I hadn’t anticipated that, as my efforts to build up Brain 3.0 yielded fruit, and as Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 quieted down, I would start to intermittently experience a state that could be described as joyful, rapturous bliss and spiritual elevation. I like to call it “calm clarity.” I believe the ancient sages in India called it “yoga,” a Sanskrit word that means “divine union.”
It is a state in which my higher self communicates freely with me, revealing wisdom far beyond my mind’s ability to imagine or conjure up on its own. It is a state in which my soul gives me clarity of vision and guidance that elevates and energizes me with a sense of peace, purpose, and grace surpassing anything I have ever felt before. In challenging situations and crises, that calmness and clarity helps ground and center me. Every moment of life has become profound and significant. Every present moment has become a gift.
Copyright © 2018 by Due Quach. Reprinted from Calm Clarity by arrangement with TarcherPerigee Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company.