Allow me to introduce Henri Laborit, renowned French neurobiologist, ethologist and philosopher. The following translated quote formed the basis of the Neurocognitive and Behavioural Approach (NBA), the result of thirty years of fundamental clinical and applied research lead by Jacques Fradin and his team at the Institut de Médicine Environmentale research centre and published by the Institut de Neurocognitivisme:
I believe that the future of humanity lies in the discovery of new relationships between individuals; once we explain to them and help them understand how their brains work and how they hold opinions which they believe are truthful
How does the human brain work? How does it make decisions? What explains our behaviour?
This precious organ, weighing a mere 1,400 grams, boasts over one hundred billion neurons and one million billion connections between those neurons! One US study calculated that the brain makes an average of five thousand decisions per day in both simple and complex situations. Simple decisions are those like the ones we make while driving: stop or go at red or green traffic lights. Complex decisions are those such as coping with new or unfamiliar situations which, nevertheless, demand that we understand their scope, causes and possible effects.
Here are some basic facts about the brain
We have two thought processes which form the basis of our “decision-actions”. The first we call the implicit cognitive process. The second, the explicit cognitive process, happens in an area taking up roughly 20% of the adult brain (the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain behind the forehead).
Our implicit cognitive process is driven by the sum total of all our education, knowledge, skills, cultural conditioning, beliefs, biases and experiences. It is hard-wired to make decisions rapidly. Its great power stems from habit and routine, perseverance, simplification, certainty, and past experience. It is also influenced by the cultural environment and other people’s opinions. These aspects, albeit limited, are extremely useful for reacting quickly and efficiently when making the thousands of operational decisions required in everyday life.
However, the explicit cognitive process is completely unsuited to tackling new or unfamiliar situations. This poses a problem in our ever-changing world as it is becoming more and more complex, uncertain, and volatile.
It is our explicit cognitive process which has evolved to deal with this world. It moves through our discomfort zones thanks to characteristics that are opposite, but complementary, to those of its implicit counterpart. The explicit cognitive process handles complexity through six particular talents:
- Curiosity, following the Socratic method of questioning, asks: Why? With whom? How? How long? This is the first step in approaching the unknown. Children are natural masters of this type of discovery.
- Flexibility allows us to manage an upsetting situation with common sense, without seeing things as set in stone. Thus we accept reality without rigidity.
- Subtlety is the ability to leave behind snap judgements, dichotomies, black/white, good/bad, and to find the advantages and opportunities as well as the inconveniences of situations which could be unpleasant at first glance.
- Relativity means having the ability to take a step back and look at the big picture. As perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves, we really need a good overview and better understanding of the ins and outs of the situation.
- Logical reflection emerges naturally from the previous four elements, common sense takes over and adaptive intelligence directs us towards acceptable solutions.
- Personal opinion allows us to construct and affirm our individual identity without worrying about the opinion of others. Here we also find self-authenticity.
While these six characteristics may seem ideal, they are only useful for dealing with the complex, new or unknown situations for which an explicit mental process is uniquely suited—not for simple decisions. Imagine if, driving along a city road, you suddenly engaged your curiosity to contemplate the interpretation of an upcoming red light. You’d be sure to have an accident! The explicit cognitive process is the slower of the two processes, as it does battle with complex situations.
We’ve all experienced waking up in the morning with a clear, illuminating solution to a problem that seemed insoluble the night before
In short, the implicit cognitive process makes thousands of routine decisions every day and hands over the reins to the explicit cognitive process when we need to expand our horizons. This control shift happens many times during the course of a normal day, without us really noticing, and particularly for topics that interest us.
Engaging our explicit cognitive process in complex situations requires an internal calm to let our intuition aid us in finding the most appropriate response. We’ve all experienced waking up in the morning with a clear, illuminating solution to a problem that seemed insoluble the night before. “Sleeping on it” works because the brain never stops and its neuroplasticity means that it creates new connections every day. Despite those neuro-myths that would have us believe we lose these connections with age, in fact, the brain is like a muscle; and as such, requires training and use, otherwise rigidity and stiffness set in.
So what happens when we don’t exercise our brain? Which, if we are honest, happens a lot. Our habits, certainties, deeply held beliefs and resistance to change train us to freeze in the face of certain events which demand agility. We all have inflexibilities; distaste for injustice, disrespect, slowness, stupidity, inefficiency, lies, carelessness, disorder…and so on and so forth. But that’s normal, right? Well, yes and no. We mustn’t give undue value to these aversions, it is important to keep calm in the face of these events so that we can best manage them. It’s better to react with intelligence than pure emotion.
How can we tell if we haven’t shifted to the correct cognitive process when needed? Do we get a warning? The answer is yes. Let’s take a closer look at this remarkable mechanism.
Stress and Jiminy Cricket
First, we need to take quick detour past the hypothalamus, located in the limbic system, the older part of the brain possessed by all vertebrates. It regulates our vital instincts: thirst, hunger, sleep, sex (for procreation purposes), and survival when our lives are threatened by a predator. The hypothalamus reacts instantly when we are threatened, triggering a suite of biological reactions and hormones such as adrenaline in order to escape death by following one of three strategies: fight, flight, or freeze. This natural phenomenon is called STRESS. It’s programmed into us and activates when we are in immediate danger. The big question is, why do we get so stressed when dealing with non-life-threatening situations? Neuroscience research shows us that our implicit cognitive process cannot find solutions to problems that seem complex or unknown; it’s just not programmed to do so. The only way out of the situation is to shift to the explicit cognitive process which has the power to deal with things calmly. This is why, if only the implicit cognitive process is engaged for a new or complex situation which it is incapable of resolving, it glitches. This provokes an immediate reaction in the hypothalamus, triggering a stress response which alerts us to the problem.
In conclusion, when we are stressed and our life is not directly threatened, the stress we feel is actually our brain’s way of telling us that we have employed the wrong process. This suggests that we have an internal monitor, our own “Jiminy Cricket” to remind us when our thinking mode is ill-adapted to the situation. But in the end, it is up to us to build up the flexibility of our explicit cognitive process through mental exercise.
*Neuroplasticity: The ability of neurones to transform themselves to adapt to changes in
their environment or changes within the body.