Brain power: How many brains do you have?

Now this may sound like an extremely easy question. It’s one, right? Wrong… we have three! As we have evolved so have our brains! I find Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain theory fascinating as it completely turns what we know about the brain on its head (pardon the pun!).


So how do our three brains work? Well firstly we have three layers of brain, not three individual brains (that would be strange!)

  • The first level is our most prehistoric brain called our lizard brain. This is found in our brain stem and deals with aspects of bodily functioning that keep us alive and safe such as eating, sleeping, breathing, fight and flight. It is basically our brain's autopilot mode. If we had to think about making our hearts beat every few seconds we wouldn’t last long!
  • Our next layer is known as the mammalian brain which includes our limbic system and deals with emotions, memories and habits. It allows us to make decisions based on past experiences and emotional gain. Most mammals have this and it explains why pets can be excited to see you as they know love, food and attention are on the way!
  • The final layer is the neo-mammalian or human brain. This is in our neocortex and controls executive thinking patterns and skills such as reading, creativity, logic, problem-solving and language. It is the part of the brain that makes humans who we are as we can learn from experience to improve our success in the future.

So fascinating as this is, why is it important? Understanding our mind and brain and how they work allows us to see that the vast majority of human behaviours, be they good or bad, are natural and most importantly controllable!

When we watch a horror movie and jump when the witch leaps out of the fruit cellar through the hatch in the floor this is our lizard brain warning us of a threat. We have no control over our brain stem so feeling stress is normal! Once this reaction has happened our mammalian brain can register the situation which leads to anxiety, stress and fear. However, our human brain then rationalises the situation and helps us to recall that it is just a movie and can't actually hurt us so we start to calm down and return to a relaxed state.

Part of my role as an Empowerment Coach is that I help clients to reduce negative and irrational thought processes and belief systems as well as teaching techniques to decrease stress and anxiety. This in turn leads to higher self-esteem, confidence, positivity, control, resilience, happiness and empowerment.

Mindfulness training such as those inspired by theorists including Carol Dweck are incredibly helpful in achieving this. Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment while acknowledging and accepting our own feelings in a rational and compassionate way. This can increase feelings of positivity while also decreasing stress levels as we are now more in control of our emotions rather than letting them control us.
So how could this be applied to our everyday lives? Let’s imagine you are having to go to the dentist, which you hate (as do I!). Now, your lizard brain is detecting a threat. This then leads the hypothalamus to flood your body with adrenaline which increases heart rate, breathing and sweating (as well as depleting your immune system!) Your body is preparing for a dangerous life-threatening situation as you know it may hurt.

Our mammalian brain will then kick in and you will start to feel anxiety and worry as maybe in the past a dentist appointment did hurt so we start to spiral thinking of that experience. 
Now both of these reactions are instinctive, automatic, absolutely natural and largely out of our control but this is where our human brain kicks in which allows us to re-take control over the situation. This is why, as I described in my article A beginners guide to stress inoculation training, stress is a natural reaction we cannot control however we can control our reactions to it. Our Neocortex will help us to rationalise the situation. For example, you may think;

  • “Well it may be uncomfortable but if I don’t have it done it will hurt more.”
  • “The anaesthetic may sting but it will be numb after so this is the worst bit.”
  • “I am going to treat myself after this to an evening watching my favourite TV show.”

Therefore by rationalising and looking at the situation realistically we can put into place psychologically healthy and effective coping strategies to help us in the particular situation.

It is clear that we are not always able to control our initial reaction to something but we can control our subsequent thoughts, feelings and behaviours in response to it. As I explained in my article The Frozen phenomenon this is a superhuman power and one we all have, it just takes practice. If you would like any further help support or advice in this area please contact me.

So next time your thoughts or feelings are instant and causing you distress don’t let your lizard brain control you, harness the power of your human brain to control it!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Rayleigh, Essex, SS6
Written by Rosslyn Whellams, BSc in Psychology and a Diploma in Emotional Health Coaching
Rayleigh, Essex, SS6

My name is Rosslyn Whellams and I am an Empowerment Coach and Psychology Teacher living in Rayleigh, Essex. I offer in person or online client centred, affordable and effective programs . My goal is to help people to increase their Emotional Empowerment so they can live their best lives! For more information please visit

Show comments

Find a coach dealing with Empowerment coaching

All coaches are verified professionals

All coaches are verified professionals