The Importance of Balance, and Why We “Black Out”

 The human brain is the pinnacle of efficiency. That 3lbs piece of white and grey matter has enough energy flowing through it to power a 10 watt light bulb. That’s enough energy to make Uncle Fester jealous. Now to begin to understand the brain we need to understand how it uses its energy. For the brain to remain highly efficient and functioning properly it relies on being in a balanced state. That means the brain needs both positive and negative processes working at the same time to create a balance.  If your brain falls out of balance some weird stuff can go down. To best illustrate this let’s look at a favorite college past time, “blacking out.”  Keep in mind this is going to be a very rudimentary explanation.

Why We Black Out

As I mentioned before the brain has both positive and negative processes. The fuel or energy for these processes is called Glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is the neurotransmitter that fuels your brain’s positive processes.  GABA is the neurotransmitter that fuels your brain’s negative processes. The plus/minus processes of Glutamate and GABA create the balance your brain needs.

But it’s Friday, and you’re thirsty. So you strap on your toga and you hit the town. Next thing you know you’re throwing back shots, cranking out keg stands that will whip a party into a frenzy and what the hell, you even shotgun a beer or eight. You see the funny thing about alcohol is that it potentiates GABA. So with a little added help from booze GABA becomes more abundant in your brain, and that offsets the balance your brain needs to function properly.

The area of your brain that is associated with short-term memory is called the hippocampus, and is normally fueled by the positive neurotransmitter Glutamate… but not tonight. Since GABA is in excess it overrides some of the functions of your hippocampus, affecting your ability to process memory. So when you wake up on a futon, naked, with a bunch of strangers you can blame it on your brain for not being balanced. No worries though, by the time you wake up and shake off your moral hangover your brain’s activity should have balanced itself back out.


 If you’re confused just remember your dashboard.


 That’s right, think of your dashboard and dials, specifically your temperature gauge. Think aboBalance is good! Don't over heat and don't get cold.ut it, you always want your temperature to be right in the middle of that gauge. If the pin moves too far towards The H (Heat) your car would over heat and not work. If the pin moves too far towards The C (Cold) your engine isn’t going to work properly either. You want that pin right in the middle, balanced.  So how does this relate back to social intelligence?



This idea of balance is important because it can be applied to your desired emotional state. It’s proven that the higher your emotions run, the more difficult it is to perform basic functions. Similarly if you don’t have enough emotional stimulation you can’t perform a task optimally either.  You want your emotions to be like the heat gauge on your car, in the middle range – not too hot and not too cold.  People who are emotionally and socially intelligent can control the flow of their emotions by thinking and priming their emotional state for what has happened and what might happen. Thw higher your emotions run the more difficult it is to control your impulses and that could lead to you doing something you might regret.  So next time you begin to feel your emotions starting to get the best of you take time to think and find your emotional balance. The lesson of balance is essential to the success and development of your emotional and social intelligence.


What’s the Deal with Emotions?

I turned on EPSN this morning and the anchors were talking about the upcoming BCS National Champtionship Game and one anchor, Kirk Herbstreet, was talking about the role emotion will play in the game and how it could be the difference for victory.  Watch any sports show regarding a big game and the importance of emotion always comes up. This holds true far beyond the realm of sports. Emotions play a vital role in our day to day actions and often times they play a much larger role than we give them credit for.

As humans we are emotional beings.  With each living moment we wade in a sea of emotion. Sometimes the waters are calm, sometimes the waters toss about, and every so often the waters rise up like a tsunami wave and overtake you. However, one thing remains: there will always be water – there will always be emotion. I submit that most people can feel their emotions, but very few actually understand them, and even fewer understand the emotions of others. In most cases we cannot stop ourselves from feeling emotions, they just come. It’s what a person does once they’ve felt an emotion that can make all the difference.

In my last post I introduced the three very general parts of the brain: The old brain, the middle brain, and the new brain. These brains, respectively, were responsible for making decisions, emotion, and thought. Any time we are confronted with a stimuli these three brains work in concert to lead us to an action. The flow of this interaction often looks like this:

 Emotion –> Thought –> Action

Once you’ve felt  and acknowledge the emotion you’re feeling it is crucial that you take time to think. Most people fail to do this, and it can be the source of difficulties in their social interactions. You might think about why did I feel that emotion? What action should I take? How will my potential reaction affect me, how will it affect others? The truth is there are a million different questions you can ask yourself in relation to any given scenario, all that matters is that you think. Once you’ve thought and used the input of your emotions you can make a decision as to what you action may be. Pretty easy huh? This is a baby step into a much larger world.

When Your Emotions Get the Best of You…

I walked out of lunch at one of my favorite sushi restaurants and noticed a man holding package and ringing the doorbell to the UPS Store that was located next door. He was about 40 and looked like any suburban father would. He continued ringing the bell until it was quite clear that no one was going to answer. The UPS Store was closed and accidently left their “open” sign lit in the window. Then something happened. He slapped the side of the package he was holding and cursed out loud. I decided to slow my pace as I walked and watch this scene play out. Clearly this guy was feeling the emotion of anger, I mean he was really cheesed, and it was because he couldn’t mail his package. My guess he was so angry because it was important that it get mailed that day. I’ll never know, I was in no position to ask him, he might choke me.

He started his car and hit his steering wheel cursing up a storm, he was still very angry. The emotional flood gates were open. He then began reving up his engine. It was clear to me at this point his emotions were in control of his actions. He backed up really fast and began speeding down the street still cursing. He failed to notice that a woman was backing her car out of her parking spot down the way. Blinded by his emotions he realized this too late, slammed his breaks, and rear-ended her car. Luckily it wasn’t that bad. However he got out and started screaming at the lady. I felt privledged and somewhat sad to watch this entire situation play out. I noticed one thing though, as the emotions started to rush in he failed to think and figure out what action would be best to take give the changing circumstances of his situation. He went right from emotion to action, skipping thought, and he is paying for it now (more than likely in the form of his insurance).

I’ll end with this. Oprah said this to Liz Lemon on an episode of 30 Rock, “We’re not always in control of the emotions we feel, but we are always in control of the actions we can take.”

Three Brains are Better than One

To begin to understand how the human brain processes information during our daily interactions you have to break down the human brain so it’s nice and simple to understand.  I remember the first time I saw an actual human brain,  and the thing I remember most is that it looked nothing like the clean images and drawings from the text books. It actually looked like a grayish mess, but once we got to slicing and dicing it began to make sense of what was what. Our lesson today is nowhere near as complex, hopefully it’s more intriguing.

breaking down the brain

breaking down the brain

The Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain is a very primitive organ. It’s called the reptilian brain because it has been around for over 450 million years and is actually still present in reptiles today. This is the first part of your brain to develop. The reptilian brain or the “old brain” is responsible for you unconscious processes. It controls things like heartbeat and breathing. Think about it, have you ever had to focus to make your heart beat, or to make yourself breath (assuming you’re not having a panic attack). Of course not, these things just happen and that’s thanks to your old brain. It’s been said that the old brain is primarily concerned with your survival. The most recent research has shown that the old brain plays a major roll decision making. The old brain actually decides “yes” or “no” in response to a situation or stimuli. Pretty neat stuff huh? We’ll expand more on the old brain at a later time.

The Middle Brain

Through human evolution we developed a brain on top of our first brain. This brain, the middle brain, is a little more complex than the first brain. From a social neuroscience perspective the middle brain is primarily concerned with emotional processing. Emotions are vital to understanding and communicating in social interactions and play a crucial role in our behaviors and actions.

The New Brain

The new brain is what makes our species so unique. No other animal has a brain like ours and that’s because of our new brain, also commonly referred to as the neo cortex. This brain is responsible for higher level thinking. It allows us to think in abstract and hypothetically as well as perform rational thought. Studies have shown that this part of the brain continues to grow and develop until the age of 24. This is what separates us from other animals and makes humans so unique.

Three Brains Become One

So lets tie this all together. The reptilian brain decides, the middle brain processes emotions, and the new brain thinks. When confronted with a stimuli all of these processes from your three brains work in concert to achieve an end result.  This is the process that your brain works when confronted with almost any situation. Of course you’re largely unaware of what’s going on, but social neuroscience aims to give you the understanding of how you perceive and communicate. The knowledge of the social perception process can make a big difference in understanding your actions and emotions. Now that we’ve laid something of a base I hope we can begin to really explore this dynamic process through some example interactions.

If this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about I recomend picking up the book NEUROMARKETING written by Patrick Revoise & Christopher Morin. This book looks at how the brain makes decisions and the best way to communicate to the old brain. It’s a terrific read and much of this post was inspired by the book’s breakdown of the brain. Check out more at: Continue reading