DR JOHN DEMARTINI - Updated 1 year ago
You may have heard people speak of a “knee-jerk reaction”. This term originates from the sudden kicking movement of the lower leg in response to a sharp tap on the patellar tendon, which lies just below the kneecap.
This type of response, known as a “stimulus-response”, is unlearned, rapid, involuntary, predictable and primitive. It has only two options in that it either fires or it doesn’t. It is black or white, never grey.
Think of how you react to painful stimuli, like placing your hand on a hot stove. You don’t need to think, strategize or plan to remove your hand – it happens instinctively as a reaction to external stimuli.
These spontaneous reactions occur in the nerves of the spinal cord, before it even reaches the brain. As you work your way up to your spinal cord to the brain stem and the higher layers of the brain in the cortex, you move from more primitive brain formation and nerve function to more advanced brain structure and nerve structure.
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Survival versus Thrival Brain
Your most primitive part of the brain operates as a survival mechanism – one of seeking and avoidance.
In that part of the brain, you’re most likely to have very limited potential with very few options and very little freedom of reaction.
However, as you go up into the very front of the brain (the forebrain), where there are massive amounts of interneurons and their associations, you’ll be more likely to reflect and then strategically act instead of spontaneously react.
Almost like a dimmer switch instead of an on-off button, you are more able to refine and fine-tune your response instead of having a black-or-white all-or-nothing response.
The farther you go up in the brain, the more governance you have.
At the very front of the brain is the prefrontal cortex, and at the front of that you have the medial prefrontal cortex, the most advanced part of the brain, your thrival brain is also called the executive center.
This part of the brain takes sensory input and associates it with all types of experiences before creating a motor output. As such, you don’t just have an automatic reflex, black or white, but shades of gray.
Think of it this way. If someone criticizes you, you may react by punching them, a primitive response from the amygdala (the emotional fight or flight driver of your limbic system).
You could also take that stimulus and think of hundreds or thousands of different experiences and scenarios you could use to respond to them differently. Perhaps with a witty comeback or firm answer, a more self-governed response derived from your executive center.
So, here’s the principle:
- The more primitive you are in the brain, the more black and white your thinking, and the fewer options available. You’re almost like an animal that sees prey and runs towards it or sees predator and runs away from it. In other words, you’re in fight-or-flight, reactive, survival mode.
- As you go into the forebrain to the most advanced part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, there are billions of options. And this is what sets human beings apart. This forebrain, executive center, prefrontal cortex allow you to have a variety of responses.
Systems 1 and Systems 2 Thinking
In other words, there are two thinking systems or systems of response in the brain.
- Systems 1 thinking: Also known as monkey brain gives rise to your emotional responses for survival – mono and di-synaptic reflexes where you react without thinking, like an animal seeking prey or avoiding predator.
- Systems 2 thinking: Also known as your human brain gives rise to slower, more governed responses as you take time to process a number of options. You may think about what response will give you more advantages than disadvantages, the impact your response may have on your future relationship, business dealings with this person, finances or social network.
It’s not what happens to you that makes a difference in life but how you process it and perceive it.
The difference between you responding without thinking and thinking without reacting is the difference in the advancement of your brain.
Your executive center or executive function is what allows you to inhibit those knee-jerk impulsive reactions that you usually regret and instead respond with a more governed wise response.
In other words, your executive center (the smart part of your brain) governs your behavior. It gives you the freedom of options to act with wisdom instead of reacting emotionally and without thinking.
This executive part of the brain also allows you to take a new stimulus, look back at the experiences you’ve had in the past, think of all the possible scenarios that could take place, and then choose the most advantageous response - all before you respond or react. This is the source of your greatest strategic analysis and action.
So while it may take under three seconds to respond, you can opt for a more graded response, more of a dimmer switch than a black-or-white on-off switch. As a result, instead of having an emotional reaction where the external world runs you, you’re now run strategically and wisely from within.
When you’re in survival mode and reacting emotionally, the external world runs you because you primitively react. Your monkey brain is running the show. However, when you’re in the advanced part of the brain, you run you because you decide how you want to respond.
That’s the difference between emotional reaction and thoughtful anticipation and planning. One is reactive. One is proactive.
On a practical level, you may wonder how this relates to your daily life and your desire to empower your life.
In every area of your life, you’re constantly being perturbed and challenged by your environment in different ways.
This powerful homeostatic mechanism in your brain, the executive center, continually tries to bring you back into balance and help you to make wise decisions that factor in all the variables and associations you’ve made in the past so you can act with wisdom instead of reacting with emotion and without thinking.
For example, you’ve likely met someone you perceived as perfect for you, only to discover their downsides a few weeks later that you hadn’t initially seen. You may have also met someone you immediately resented, only to later find the upsides to them that you hadn’t been aware of at first.
With nearly every individual you meet you tend to have an initial subjective bias reaction until you later become conscious of the different variables that allow you to be more objective.
The executive center can override your instinct to react, allow you to assess the situation in a more balanced way, and make resulting wise decisions and actions.
Systems 2 thinking, the executive function, is a reflective mind.
When you use your prefrontal cortex, your executive center you give rise to your executive function or systems 2 thinking. This is the smart, thinking part of your brain. It reflects, stops, thinks, anticipates, strategically manages, strategically plans, considers the pros and cons, and wisely acts.
In my signature two-day program, the Breakthrough Experience, I’ve met individuals so highly infatuated with someone that they are driven by their impulsive actions to spend all their time with this individual. They swear blindly that this individual is all positive and no negative. I’ve met others who are so highly resentful of someone that they struggle to see any upside to the individual they are judging. These responses are the result of their ratios of perception.
- When you have ratios of perceptions that are black or white (in other words, you see them with all ‘bad’ and no ‘good’ or all ‘good’ and no ‘bad’) you are highly subjectively biased, your primitive responses tend to be activated. As such, you’ll tend to react emotionally without thinking. That’s because the blood, glucose and oxygen flood to the subcortical region of the brain as this lights up in response to your fundamental assessment of the outer world. You’re now in a brain state of distress.
- When you have a more balanced view, the blood, glucose and oxygen flood your prefrontal cortex and activate your executive function. You’re poised, present, neutral resilient and adaptable, and have eustress instead of distress.
When you can move from seeing positive or negative, good or bad, black or white, and instead see both sides neutrally, you can stop, reflect and think. That’s when your medial prefrontal cortex is now fully online.
This allows you to empower your life because now the voice and the vision on the inside are louder than the opinions on the outside.
As such, the world on the inside can intrinsically drive you.
People who are intrinsically driven and spontaneously inspired tend to achieve far more than those who are extrinsically driven. That’s why I say, mind mastery is life mastery. If you want to master your life then the path to your true power lies in the development of your executive center.
In my signature program the Breakthrough Experience, I speak a lot about the role of values and the importance of knowing your unique hierarchy of values.
Whenever you are living congruently with your highest value, which is an intrinsic value - one that is inspired from within, your executive center receives blood, glucose and oxygen.
You then begin to have more resilience and adaptability and expand your awareness to have a broader perspective. As a result, you are less likely to react and more likely to act while also being more inspired, fulfilled and vitalized by your life.
On the flip side, when you’re attempting to live according to someone else’s higher values and your lower values and filling your days with things lower in priority and less meaningful to you, the blood, glucose and oxygen go into your subcortical amygdala. As a result, you will go into reactive mode and become volatile and vulnerable.
Therefore, an individual in systems 2 thinking is more strategic, objective, diverse and proactive, not to mention profoundly empowered, compared to an individual in systems 1 thinking who is an automaton reacting to the external environment like a reflex.
For this reason, I spend so much time teaching and writing about the executive center, why it matters, and why developing it is so important.
There are many ways you can develop your systems 2 thinking or executive center
#1 Fill your day with HIGH PRIORITY actions
Like every other individual, you live by a set of priorities or a set of values, a list of things that are most important to least important in your life. This hierarchy of values is unique and fingerprint-specific to you – and is something you are wise to identify if you would love to take command of your life.
Tale a moment to consider if you are currently filling your day with truly meaningful objectives and high priority actions that fulfill and inspire you. Or if you are letting the overruling world around you determine your fate.
If you do not fill your day with high priority actions that inspire you, your day will fill up with low priority distractions that don’t. If you do not bring order to your life, disorder will rule your life.
I’m sure you can think of a time when you felt invigorated at the end of a day, when you ran the day instead of having the day run you, when you had a plan, stayed focused on high priority tasks, and achieved your goals and had a productive day. You likely were able to handle any challenges you faced at the end of the day objectively and proactively.
Think of another day when the world seemed to descend upon you with unexpected calls, tasks, other people’s requests and expectations – a day that was busy but certainly not productive and aligned with your highest priorities. Any challenges you faced at the end of the day were likely handled with an emotional reaction and frustration.
- Scenario 1 resulted in systems 2 thinking where your thrival brain, self-governing executive center was activated.
- Scenario 2 resulted in systems 1 thinking where your primitive brain, amygdala in your limbic system was activated,
When you are unclear about your true highest priorities and have difficulty saying no, distractions can take you off track and consume your time, attention, energy, focus, power of concentration, and productive capacity. Such distractions can derail you from greatly achieving or fulfilling what you would actually love.
Give yourself permission to say no to low priority distractions and say yes to high priority actions. That’s one of the keys to increasing your executive function skills and mastering your life.
It is wise to focus on and stick to high priority actions that are congruent with your highest values. You cannot please everyone, so don’t even begin to try.
#2 Fill your day with high-quality foods
In the same way that it is wise to fill your day with high priority actions, so too is it wise to fill your body with high-quality food.
You may have already noticed that if you eat sugar, you experience an initial blood sugar high followed by a corresponding low. Sugar tends to accentuate the low.
When you consume high sugar concentrations, the resulting high and low blood sugar puts you straight into the primitive part of your brain or systems 1 thinking, the amygdala.
The same applies if you overeat or undereat - too much or too little of almost anything automatically creates increasing volatility, which puts you in systems 1 thinking and makes you react. As such, the external world runs your life.
However, suppose you moderate your diet and eat with a rhythm and consistent moderation. In that case, you tend to keep in the executive function, act instead of reacting, and achieve more. As such, you empower your life.
In other words, any time you do something with a balanced ratio of perceptions with moderation, consistency and rhythm, you automatically help the executive center govern your life, so you’re in governance.
#3 The quality of your life is based on the quality of the questions you ask
The external world events will probably and frequently perturb you, but it’s not what happens to you that matters but instead how you perceive what matters to you.
In the Breakthrough Experience, I teach a scientific set of questions known as the Demartini Method which is part of the new psychology model called Demartinian Psychology.
This new methodology is designed to strengthen and develop the executive part of your brain.
The method helps you to master your perceptions, become conscious of unconscious information so you can see an upside for every downside and downside for every upside, and find hidden order in your perceived apparent chaos.
You can move from systems 1 thinking, where you perceive you are a victim of your history, to systems 2 thinking, where you actively become the master of your destiny. In this way you actively evolve your brain from low function to high function.
You do not have to have your outer world run your life. Instead, your perceptions from within can take command of what’s out there.
You have full command over your perceptions by becoming conscious of unconscious or missing information.
Using the quality questions from the Demartini Method, you can re-center and rebalance yourself to move from systems 1 to systems 2, from reflexes to reflective, so you can strategically act instead of reacting.
You are more likely to be intrinsically driven by design and live by design instead of duty, instead of continually reacting to the world around you.
To sum it up
- There are two thinking systems or systems of response in the brain.
- Systems 1 thinking: emotional responses for survival - monosynaptic reflexes where you react without thinking, like an animal seeking prey or avoiding predator.
- Systems 2 thinking: slower, more governed responses as you take time to process a number of options. You may think about what response will give you more advantages than disadvantages, the impact your response may have on your future relationship, business dealings with this person, finances or social network.
- Developing your systems 2 thinking or executive function is the key to empowering your life.
- Your executive function is the key to expanding your awareness and potential.
- Your executive function is the thing that makes you different from the animals. It’s the thrival, thinking part of your brain as opposed to what others refer to as the money, survival or more primitive part of your brain.
- Your executive function is what allows you to be inspired instead of de-spired and to be a master of your destiny instead of a victim of your history.
Suppose you are inspired to grow and develop your executive function to override your primitive reactions more easily. In that case, there are actions steps you can take immediately that can help you:
- Identify your highest values and priorities by completing the FREE Online Demartini Value Determination Process on my website.
- Attend the Breakthrough Experience – In the Breakthrough Experience, I show you how to use the executive center development tool called the Demartini Method to take whatever happens in your life and extract meaning and fuel out of it so you can live by your highest value, “telos” or mission. I would love you to join me for this two-day program so I can help you identify your unique telos - the expression of your highest value and show you how to develop your self-governing executive center which is key for life mastery, so you can do something extraordinary with your life and fulfill your highest calling to serve and achieve.
Are you ready for the NEXT STEP?
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You’ll come away with a 3-step action plan and the foundation to empower your life.
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