So there you are, when suddenly you hear that song that reminds you of that person. And you’re emotionally hijacked-just like that. Good or bad, the song interacts with your neural net and triggers the emotions you have associated with it. Emotional hijacks happen every day, often unconsciously, often with debilitating results.

An expression on a team member’s face subconsciously reminds you of Mom at her most critical, yet you have no idea why you dislike speaking with her. But the team member actually has chronic indigestion, her facial expression has nothing to do with you, and she wonders why you haven’t shown her the report…invited her to the meeting… smiled on the way to the coffee machine.

And so it goes. Trigger-response. Trigger-response. Trigger-response. All day, every day. Human beings are meaning-making machines. The trouble is we often assign meaning where it doesn’t exist.

Most of these internal programs-;the neural connections and associations that give our experience meaning-we “wrote” between the ages of zero and six years old. Many of our programs were either provided for us by our parents or were coded by our young brain in reaction to perceived threats.

How can we rewrite our own programs to update their meaning and get the results we want? How can we assist others in getting the results and experiences they would like? How can we use this knowledge to increase performance, innovation, and engagement?

The Reptile, The Mammal, The Executive 

You may like the idea of change. Heck, parts of you may be very interested in talking about change and describing how other people should change. Actual change involving ourselves is scary to certain parts of our brain-especially the parts that exist to keep us safe.

Let’s take a closer look.

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Your brain has three essential parts. The first part-the brain stem or reptilian brain-sits at the base of your skull. It’s the oldest and most primitive part of the brain, and it controls balance, temperature regulation, and breathing. It acts out of instinct and is primarily a stimulus-response machine with survival as its focus.

Layered on top of the brain stem is the mammalian brain, which controls and expresses emotion, short-term memory, and the body’s response to danger. The key player here is the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain where the fight/flight/freeze response is. Its primary focus is also survival, though it is also the seat of anger, frustration, happiness, and love.

Let’s combine the limbic system with the survival mechanism in the reptilian brain. This creates the powerful combo pack we’ll call the “critter brain,” as my mentor Carl Buchheit of NLP Marin terms it. Our critter brain doesn’t care about quality of life-it cares about survival. And the key to staying alive is belonging, or being like the other critters in the environment.

The third part of the brain is the neocortex. This part of the brain is most evolved in human beings and houses the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex enables us to plan, innovate, solve complex problems, think abstract thoughts, and have visionary ideas. It allows us to measure the quality of our experience, compare it to an abstract ideal, and yearn for change. The prefrontal cortex enables us to have advanced behaviors including tool making, language, and higher-level consciousness. 

For the purposes of simplicity we’ll distill the above down to two states: the Critter State, where we don’t have access to all parts of our brain and thus are reactive, are in fight/flight/freeze, or are running safety programs; and the Smart State, where we have easy access to all of our resources and can respond from choice. (See Figures below.)

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For innovation and growth we must ensure the Smart State-not the Critter State-is driving management decisions and behavior. Management methods that rely on fear to enforce compliance keep people in their Critter State, or in old safety and survival patterns, and reduce innovation. This cultural practice of keeping people in their Critter State has grown increasingly obsolete.