The Brain’s Survival Mechanism; Humans vs Animals
The evolutionarily older parts of the human brain are very similar to the animals from which we evolved. The survival function of the human brain is primarily located in the old, animal part of the human brain. The aspects of humans that make us so much more advanced than other species have little to do with this survival brain area. So, each of our personalities, value systems, judgements, etc. are essentially unrelated to the part of our brain that wants to keep us safe.
The mechanism that our brain utilizes to keep us safe is very similar to how animals brain functions to keep them safe. This is called the Fight/Flight/Freeze mechanism, and it originates in the amygdala. This is located deep in an evolutionarily very old part of the brain. In both humans and animals, when our brain’s survival center perceives potential danger, the amygdala immediately throws the switch for the Fight/Flight/Freeze response, which immediately triggers other parts of the brain and body to mobilize the body to fight, to flee, or to freeze (e.g., “deer in the headlights”).
How is this mechanism any different for us humans?
One of the big brain differences between us and them is that the “thinking” part of our brain is relatively undeveloped at the time we are born. That is one of the big reasons why we are totally dependent upon our caregivers for so many years. How many of you would bet money on the accuracy of a young child’s conclusions about his/her world? I hope none of you!
Since the thinking part of our brain is only partially functional for our first several years of life, we are not able to accurately interpret or understand what is happening around us. In young children, since the thinking part of their brain is not yet fully functional, an evolutionarily older part of the brain is “in charge” for the time being. This is called the “limbic” part of our brain. It has millions of functions, but I am mainly focusing upon the strong emotional and survival mechanisms. Since a young child’s thinking brain is relatively offline for several years, it is our reptilian brain that decides what is dangerous or not. This is really important to understand, because the reptilian brain has ZERO capacity for logic or understanding. It also has ZERO understanding of anything related to language or conceptual understanding.
This is very important because the young child’s prefrontal cortex, or “thinking brain” is not yet mature enough to understand what is dangerous and what is not. The young child’s brain is also not yet able to understand the context of so much that happens. Since young children’s brains are still dominated by strong emotional perceptions, many experiences are interpreted by their brain as potentially dangerous, very often when they are not!
So what happens? Since the prefrontal cortex is not yet fully functional, many, many experiences or perceptions are sent to the “survival” part of our brain, which is in the limbic system of the brain. Here, they are processed very differently than everyday memories. These experiences are tightly bound with “Fight/Flight/Freeze” emotional/physical responses, and are all set to re-trigger the ”Fight/Flight/Freeze” response when the person is reminded of these past experiences or perceptions. This is all unconscious and beyond our control.
So instead of just remembering what happened, we actually relive it, as if it is happening again.