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What Part of Your Brain Is In Charge?

Who's in Charge? Mickey or Lola?

(Note: You may wish to watch this at 0.75 speed.)

Have you ever wondered why people sometimes act out of character during times of stress? This is because our brains have different parts that work together. One part is our Frontal Cortex, which enables us to reason and judge complex situations. Another part is the amygdala, which is deep inside all animal brains. It acts quickly so we can react quickly in times of danger.

For fun and to give them some personality, let’s call the “amygdala” Mickey l and the “frontal lobe” Lola.

Mickey is always alert for potential harm. When he senses danger he floods the body with hormones that make us tense, afraid, and sometimes angry. We call this the fight/flight/freeze response. Mickey’s job is to help us survive mortal danger.

Lola is the one who does what we call thinking. She can ponder complicated situations. She can judge whether something is a good idea or not. She can help us make decisions and plan ahead.

We need both Mickey and Lola because we face different kinds of threats. In times of danger, like when we encounter a poisonous snake, we don’t want Lola saying, “Let’s consider our options.” You want Mickey to take over, to pump our body with adrenaline to get away as fast as possible!

But if you are in a meeting where there is disagreement and tension, say over a budget shortfall, you will want more options than Mickey offers. Flight -- where Mickey might storm out of the meeting, or picking a fight, or even sitting in silent frustration will just make the problem worse.

Mickey’s great when there is a clear and present physical danger. But in emotional situations over money, or identity, or relationships, we want to keep Mickey from flooding the body with hormones that quicken our heartbeat, shorten our breath and tense our muscles. We don’t want Mickey in charge when we have conversations over the budget, differing theologies, or whether or not to clap during worship. We want Lola to bring her openness, flexibility and creativity to the table.

In emotional situations, how can we get Mickey to back off, and let Lola be in charge? Here are a few strategies:

  • Have a spiritual practice, such as meditation, that enables you to notice when Mickey starts to move into action.
  • Take deep, cleansing breaths and count to ten to provide a pause that helps Mickey calm down.
  • And if you feel that the hormones have already started to impact your body, try alternate nostril breathing, the yoga practice known as Nadi Shodhana.

​​ When you understand both Mickey’s and Lola’s strengths, you can help them to help you manage whatever comes your way!